Saturday Home Improvement Blogging: Guilty Pleasures Edition

by sawamix

I’m glad it’s not just me.

If you click over to Hoffmania, you’ll see right below the title:

OMIGOD. SOMEONE JUST CLICKED IN. Quick – clean this place up.

I know the feeling. I’m a packrat. I’m not one of those pathological packrats that still has pay stubs from 1977 (not even Mr. Brilliant has those anymore) or copies of the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times from the last six months piled up in a corner because I really, really AM going to read them, or all of my toys from childhood. I’m not a compulsive collector of Hummels, cherubs, skulls, pictures of sad-eyed dogs, Beanie Babies, model airplanes or Harry Potter action figures, or cheap plastic ashtrays in the shape of a foot that say “I get a kick out of [someplace]” (though the latter is not for lack of trying — long story). The closest I have to a collection is a small group of 1920’s cloche hats that I actually used to wear until I cut my hair short and they now make me look like Stewie Griffin’s head rotated 90 degrees. Every six months I go through my filing cabinet, put everything that’s over a year old into a box in the basement, take what’s already down there that’s over three years old (seven years for income tax records) and shred it. When I go through the mail I throw about 90% of the catalogs and other crap away.

So why is my house always such a mess?

Part of it is that if I have a choice between doing something fun or straightening up, fun usually wins. Part of it is that I’m often unable to get past “But I might NEED this!” Part of it is all those clothes I can’t bear to part with that haven’t fit me for over 15 years but I really, really MIGHT fit into them again someday. But most of it is that I tend to live by two simple laws of the universe:

1) “If you like something, buy dozens of them because they WILL stop making it”. This is why I still have about six boxes of Ambervision sunglasses in my linen closet (they really ARE good for cutting glare), and why I recently found fourteen pair of black leggings — in unopened packages — in my closet. I have a drawer full of them — some are paint-stained or faded, but I have to SAVE them BECAUSE ZOMG THEY MIGHT STOP MAKING THEM!!! This is how I recently donated a half-dozen linen blazers to the Caring About the Strays thrift shop. Because Chadwicks may one day just stop carrying classic linen blazers (hey, I never said it was rational) and one year I just bought a bunch of them, in a size I no longer wear, even though I didn’t wear them then either. Because you know, I may decide I want to start wearing suits again.

2) “Never fail to buy anything that is on sale.” This rule actually has its origins in the seminal 1960’s book How To Be a Jewish Mother, a book so important to my early development that it is a documented fact that I have, in fact, bought two shirts for Mr. Brilliant and when he wore one of them for the first time, asked, “You didn’t like the other one?” This rule is what gives rise to racks of canned goods in the basement, as if it is still 1963 and I am all ready, locked and loaded in the event of Mutually Assured Destruction, and to at times as many as a half-dozen multipacks of toilet paper and paper towels. This last tendency is a family inheritance. When my mother first moved to North Carolina, her house then had a shed in the back yard for which I wanted to have a sign made up that read “The Charmin Building.” Pot, meet kettle. This happens because when the A&P puts the 12-big-roll pack on sale for $5.99 and I have a dollar-off coupon, I have to buy it. And if they’re going to do this every four weeks, as they are wont to do, you can end up accumulating a lot of toilet paper. BUT ZOMG THEY MIGHT NEVER PUT IT ON SALE AGAIN!! More recently I’ve managed to fight this one, but I have to tell you that having only 24 rolls in the house for two people still feels like “We’re running low.”

In case you’re wondering, no, I do not have a Costco card. That would be like giving George W. Bush a case of Budweiser for safekeeping. The main reason I don’t bother with Costco is that the one closest to me is so crowded at times when I can go that the lines are often all the way to the back of the store, but some of it is sheer self-preservation. Can you imagine someone like me with a Costco card? The mind reels.

Ever since we got the hi-def television set in January, I’ve rediscovered my addiction to home shows. It seems odd to be doing this at a time when the real estate market is crashing, but then I was always one to discover trends far too late. But one day I discovered the home show to end all home shows: Clean House on the Style channel. I stumbled upon this little goodie on a rainy Saturday afternoon and have been hooked ever since.

The premise of Clean House is nothing new. A team of “makeover specialists” visits a home that makes even people like me look tidy by comparison, talks people into getting rid of stuff to which they’re emotionally attached, throws a big yard sale, matches up to $1000 of proceeds and throws in some “gifts”, cleans up the house and redecorates at least part of it. It’s basically Queer Eye with a different set of cartoon characters and a smaller budget.

The Carson Kressley flamboyant role is handled by one Niecy Nash, a curvelicious black diva with a hibiscus behind her ear whose persona is a walking stereotype of every woman in every Tyler Perry movie ever made. She’s sort of like what Oprah would be if Oprah were funny and were a Marine drill sergeant in the bargain. Nash is a familiar face from Reno 911 and is set to headline a sitcom on Fox that sounds like an American Fawlty Towers — all of which makes me hope she’s not planning to give up the Clean House gig. The Thom Filicia decorator role is filled by “designer to the stars” Mark Brunetz, who is less bitchy than you’d expect and somehow manages to work wonders with little money. Then there’s a really annoying woman named Trish Suhr who handles the yard sales with a kind of Tennessee-by-way-of-Santa Monica folksiness, and a “go to guy”, Matt Iseman, who handles the power tools and is supposedly a stand-up comic, though it’s hard for anyone to be all that funny on this show when Nash is around sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and when you see people whose domestic lives are pretty much a train wreck caused by a combination of American overconsumerism and a touch of mental illness.

But the show is highly addictive, and while at home one day this past week I found myself tuning the TV into what turned out to be a Clean House marathon. And in the process I cleaned out my closet, filled up two bags of clothes, one of which is stuff too battered to go anywhere but into the Amvets bins over by the supermarket, and another of stuff to be put out at my own yard sale later on this spring. And that’s where Clean House goes beyond just standard feel-superior-to-these-people reality shows. By watching these people crying over getting rid of stuff that you can’t imagine anyone keeping, it forces you to look at yourself, and what you’re keeping around.

Packrattery seems to come from three basic places: One of them is the Fear of Not Having Enough. This is where the need to have a half-dozen 12-jumbo-roll packages of Charmin comes from, and where parties for ten people where you cook enough for forty come from. The idea of You Can Always Buy More never seems to occur to those of us who have this mindset. Because we’re pessimistic by nature, we’re certain that there will never again be another sale on Charmin, or that it will snow 47 feet and we won’t get out of the house for six weeks, or we’ll lose our job and at least if we have all this toilet paper around we can wipe our asses even if we can’t do anything else.

Another mindset of packrattery is seen in shopoholism, and its three corollaries:

1) The Fear That They Will Stop Making This Item

2) This Might Come In Handy Someday, and the most dangerous one of all…

3) For Five Bucks It Can Hang In the Closet, which is just another name for Never Fail To Buy Anything That Is On Sale.

The other night Clean House ran a two-hour appalling train wreck in which the crew cleaned up a house in Piscataway, New Jersey that makes me look like Martha Stewart. We’re talking being unable to walk through the house clutter. This isn’t just packrattery, this is pathology. As the crew set up the yard sale, the three women — a widowed mother and two adult live-in daughters — who lived in this mess kept carting stuff they couldn’t bear to part with back into the house.

In the course of this show, the mother appeared to have about 27 housecoats — and seemed to need every one of them. I thought about the 14 unopened pair of black leggings in my closet and about the idea I had the other night, that since the Mainstreet Blues petite-length twill pants seem to fit me really well, I should maybe order a few pair in each color, IN CASE THEY STOP MAKING THEM. And so far (knock on wood) I haven’t ordered any more.

The third part of packrattery is Filling the Hole. Now get your mind out of the gutter, because while Filling the Hole is related to shopoholism, it’s different in that shopaholism is about the buying — the PROCESS of acquiring Stuff™, whereas Filling the Hole is about the HAVING of said Stuff, usually, but not always, in the form of collecting. It’s about the pleasure of looking at the beanie babies, or the vintage hats, or the teddybears. Even if you can’t see them, you know they’re there. You’re never poor, because you Have Stuff.

All of this is, of course, based in childhood emotional deprivation, and my one beef with Clean House is that even the Formidable Niecy lecturing you about keeping up your nice newly-cleaned and decorated house isn’t necessarily going to be enough to make you suddenly forget the emotional traumas of your childhood. And I notice that the show doesn’t go back a year later to see how well their subjects have held up their end of the bargain.

But now, after having watched about a dozen episodes of this show this week, it’s as if I have these four people in my head as I go through stuff trying to cull out things to sell at our garage sale later on this spring. And if you’ll excuse me, I have a basement to go through. I think that since we have four cat carriers and only two cats, two of the carriers can go. And then there are those dozens of 3-prong outlets I bought when we moved in…..