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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 11, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Hoarding, Hallelujah, and Sassy Friends

If you could see my office, with piles of books and cds I mean to review Real Soon Now, stacks of artwork that I intend to scan as wallpaper for my computer (some of the piles nearly a decade old), and all kinds of research material, model train equipment, gifts I forgot I had bought and now can't remember whom they're for, long dead or superseded electronic and camera equipment, Hint water by the case, and reams of notes -- some of it for projects I finished and published years ago ...

Then you'd understand why I bought the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee.

It's not that I'm a pathological hoarder. There are no goat-paths through tall stacks of junk -- though there are spots in my office that show promise. I haven't taken over other rooms in the house.

I occasionally go through my stuff and perform triage.

I sometimes allow other people to toss things while I'm away; I have never yet asked for or even missed a single thing they threw away.

My wife is the one who set the tone for us. When we moved from a rented condo to our present house nineteen years ago, she went to our storage unit and looked at the stacks of boxes we had never even opened since moving to Greensboro from South Bend nearly a decade before.

"If we've lived without this stuff all this time, then we've either replaced it already or we don't need it," she said. "I want to give it all away."

"Go for it," I said, and our safari into the land of hoarding was stopped in time.

I used to get review copies of most sci-fi books for free, and for a while kept adding them all to my library. Then it dawned on me that if a book didn't look interesting enough for me to review it, why in the world should I keep it on my shelves? I gave away all but the ones I actually read.

In recent years I've gone even further, coldly assessing books that I have not looked into in twenty or even thirty years. "Will there ever come a day when I'll stand here and decide to read -- or reread -- this book rather than a new one or an old favorite?" If the answer is no, the book is toast. Ed McKay, here I come.

The result is that instead of ending up with our shelves double-stacked with books and our floors gradually filling up, our house is more or less under control.

I am adamant that our garage is for parking cars, and storage is never allowed to interfere with that, not even temporarily. There are things we keep in storage units -- stage props, costumes, set pieces, and art that has cycled off our walls.

We are not out of control. Not not not.

Yet as I read the heart-rending stories of the people trapped in miserable lives because they could not let go of their stuff -- and learned what Frost and Steketee have discovered about the motives and feelings of the victims of hoarding syndrome -- I kept saying to myself, "I know how that feels. I've done that."

This is because the impulses that lead to hoarding -- mostly fear -- are actually positive traits, unless they get out of control.

It's good to be careful with our tools -- and, when you think about it, almost everything that these hoarders hang on to can be considered a tool. So it makes sense that we have evolved, collectively, a strong need to acquire and hang on to useful stuff.

It only gets out of hand when you're afraid to get rid of it.

I might need this someday, the hoarders say to themselves. Is that pathological? I hope not, because I hang on to a manual typewriter for precisely that unreasonable reason. (Let's face it: If society ever collapsed to the point that I was reduced to using a non-electric typewriter, then nobody would be buying new fiction and I'd have to do honest work for a living -- not writing.)

Some hoarders are also pathological acquirers. If this is a good shirt that fits well, why not buy three? I do that -- because I know how rare it is for me to find good-quality stuff that fits me. When I found a source for Scrunges, which 3M stopped making a decade ago, I bought what I hope will turn out to be a lifetime supply.

It happens over and over that a product I really like is discontinued, so that whenever possible, I lay in a supply. Is that pathological? No, it's the result of bitter experience! The problem comes when you acquire, not things that are truly rare and important in your life, but everything you see.

I used to keep a full run of Atlantic Monthly and Scientific American. Then I realized that only once in all the years of hoarding them had I actually gone back and looked for an article -- and I couldn't find it. (We ended up locating it online, of course.) A few years ago, I jettisoned both collections and our attic roof breathed a sigh of relief.

Here's the point of this book: The behaviors that ruin these people's lives -- and the lives of their families -- are normal, even useful, until they run amok. The problem is that they're afraid to draw a line.

It's also highly instructive to realize that there seems to be a hereditary component to hoarding -- but heredity is not destiny. Some people's hoarding is triggered by a traumatic event. They didn't hoard, they went through something awful, and suddenly they're afraid to let anything go.

It's worth knowing and remembering that this is true of most dysfunctional human behavior. The triggering trauma only has its devastating result with people who are genetically disposed to react that way; but until the trigger came, the genetic predisposition was under control.

It's also important to recognize that forcible housecleaning does not work with genuine hoarders. It's devastating when people come in and strip the person of the "nest" that he or she has been working on -- and living in -- for years. It only increases their fears. It's a new trauma, after all! So they reconstruct their nest as quickly as possible -- and avoid letting anyone into their lives for fear of having it all taken away again.

The few who changed their lives in the process of Frost's and Steketee's research did so because they themselves chose to not let their fears ruin their lives. They themselves did the throwing away (though some of them couldn't throw or give things away fast enough to keep up with their acquisitions, alas).

Stuff is a moving, sad book, but also a truthful, informative, useful one. I'd like to say that it's a keeper, but ...

*

I have never watched the TV show about hoarding. After reading Stuff, it feels to me as if such a "reality show" is the exact equivalent of the people who used to go to Bedlam hospital in London to stare at all the crazy people as a way of passing an idle afternoon.

What does it say about us when we watch other people's genuine misery and mental illness for entertainment? I will never watch this show, whatever it's called. I'm sorry if you ever have. Let these frightened people not have to add public shame to their suffering.

*

This fall, the day before Halloween, shoppers in the huge atrium of Macy's Center in Philadelphia suddenly found themselves in the midst of Christmas.

Or, more precisely, in the midst of an almost-overpowering presentation of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia had deployed itself among the shoppers throughout the atrium of the mall -- along with more than 650 members of choirs in the Philadelphia area. The world's largest pipe organ provided the accompaniment.

Imagine yourself there. All at once the people around you start to sing "Hallelujah" -- or rather, they sing the part of it that fits their vocal range. And, unlike the crazy people who do karaoke while listening to their iPods, these singers were good.

The acoustics in the atrium were like singing in the shower. The reverberations must have made it feel as if you were breathing the music into the body, as if it was pumping your blood.

Cameras recorded the civilians looking around, puzzled at first, but soon joining in the joy of the thing. Some may have joined in -- it would have been hard not to, if you knew the parts! -- while others recorded it on their phones.

I watched this Random Act of Culture on the Opera Company of Philadelphia website.

At the end, as everyone bursts into applause and cheering, I was so moved that tears leapt into my eyes and I could hardly breathe. The climactic chorus from the greatest piece of choral music ever written, with a message of joy: imagining myself among them was overwhelming.

Then I opened the very next piece of email, and realized that I could be among them. Not in Macy's Center in Philadelphia, but here in Greensboro, with the Oratorio Society's annual presentation of The Messiah.

They're already rehearsing every Monday night -- singers who have paid $25 for the privilege of taking part. They will perform on Thursday, December 9th, at the War Memorial Auditorium beside the Coliseum.

So mark that date on your calendar and make sure you're there. No, there won't be 650 voices, and no, the world's largest organ won't be in attendance. But it will still be a live performance of The Messiah, and you can breathe in all that glorious music as singers in the same room with you breathe it out.

*

Just in case you're about to commit to signing up with Audible.com in order to download audiobooks, and you're trying to decide what .mp3 player to buy in order to listen to them, I have two suggestions:

First, go with an iPod, if only because iTunes integrates extremely well with Audible.com's format.

Second, while I have friends who use the Shuffle (with the shuffling feature turned off), the new generation of this tiny player has its controls on the earbuds rather than the device itself -- and many of us can't get Apple's earbuds to stay in our ears.

So -- third -- consider the iPod Nano, with Sony's MDR-J10 earphones. These earphones' nonslip design is perfect if you're going to exercise while listening (though I urge you not to swim while listening).

(This advice comes from my experience with getting caught in a downpour on my bicycle two miles from home. I tried to shelter my poor Nano, but by the time I got home, the poor thing had drowned. No resuscitation was possible.)

The Nano, straight out of the box, has no obvious way to clip to your clothing. There are various third-party devices -- mostly armbands and such -- but the one I have found to be absolutely reliable is a leather one with a powerful clip.

At first it can be tricky sliding the Nano in and out (which you have to do to recharge and change content), but soon it becomes supple and there's no problem.

The clip is so strong that it can take a little effort to pry it open enough to attack it to your waistband -- but this strength also allows me to clip it to a pocket or the placket of a shirt. The leather is so protective that when I dropped it on concrete, the Nano sustained no damage at all.

Here's a link to the clip case I've been using with such success.

*

If you enjoyed the snidely satirical website "Catalog Living," you'll get a similar kick out of "Unhappy Hipsters," which is devoted to funny or disturbing captions under pictures of people living in the midst of weird architectural coolness.

The URL is http://unhappyhipsters.com/ , but beware of leaving the "s" out of "hipsters" -- without it, you go to a site you probably don't want to visit.

*

Have you seen the videos in the Sassy Gay Friend series of web satires?

Ophelia, jilted by Hamlet and grieving for her dead father, is about to walk into the river and drown herself. Up pops her sassy gay friend, saying, "What are you doing! What what what are you doing?"

Then he talks sense to her -- Hamlet's a loser, she should just write a sad poem in her journal and move on. She listens, and another life is saved.

If you like the Sassy Gay Friend version of Hamlet, then you'll probably want to go on to see him give uber-sensible advice to Juliet, Desdemona, the Giving Tree, and Eve.

Let me warn you right off, though: There's something in every sketch to offend almost everyone. For one thing, there are some seriously naughty words, occasional nudity (in the Eve sketch), and outrageous sentiments. For another, very prickly people might think that sassy gay men are being ridiculed.

They're not. What's being ridiculed is the way these classic stories really depend on characters reacting with despair instead of good sense.

Besides, I've had sassy gay friends who pour on the swish as a way to make hard truths palatable: "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!" -- affectionate hectoring, funny the whole time. The act is designed to take the sting out of serious truth-telling, and it works.

If you can't take a joke without getting offended -- for either Left or Right reasons -- don't watch these videos.

Otherwise, give them a look, because they're funny.

This link is to the Ophelia video; afterward, look down and to the right on the page to see the other Sassy Gay Friend vids. (And beware of truly awful imitations farther down the list.)


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