Tuesday, June 15, 2010

#135 - Lovely Weeds

Lovely Weeds

6/15/10 (#135)

"It's like being inside a model train set." That's how my father described the few acres of college town that surrounded his business. The century-old paddle and oar factory sat next to train tracks that, ¼ mile north, carried freight cars across a picturesque trestle bridge that spanned the jagged rocks that made up the bed of the Stillwater River. To the south, the train rails passed a old New England homes adorned with painted porch chairs and bright potted flowers before crossing several roads in quick succession, each intersection, each featuring the flashing lights and ringing bells of classic black-and-white "X-ing" warnings. When a train passed, it was easy to imagine it had all been laid out by some fussy hobbyist, intent on making an improbably accurate scale version of an idyllic Maine town.

I worked at the factory for 10 years, and never tired of walking out to the trestle for my lunch breaks. The primal force of the river as a whole was a satisfying sound, but just as an orchestra sounds like a cohesive unit until we begin picking out the individual melodies of each different instrument, there were rich layers of sound that could be picked out from the river's white noise: The low-end rumble of the major flows, the hollow midrange as it met the resistance of the rocks, the high end "shhhhhh" that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. It wasn't a mystical experience or a metaphor for life — it was simply a roaring, awesome soundtrack for eating a turkey sandwich and escaping from the smell of varnish and sawn wood.

When college was in session, I often saw students crossing the trestle, an easy shortcut from the rental houses across the river to the charming couple of blocks called downtown. In the summertime, I usually had the whole trestle to myself. One sunny late July day, I took my chicken salad and a soda and set out for the bridge, turning the corner behind the factory store to see what seemed like a scene from a movie: a beautiful woman I had never seen, gleefully tromping through the tall grass and picking weeds.

I'm never been much for horticulture, so I'm sure they were officially known as flowers, but when something grows everywhere, uninvited and untended, we tend to call them weeds. All along the unkempt paths along the train tracks, tiny wild flowers grew and bloomed and died without anyone taking notice, yet this college-aged woman was plucking them with the enthusiasm of a six-year old. As our paths converged, I marveled at her smile, her long blondish hair, her deep suntan, and risked making a fool of myself by momentarily pretending to know something about flowers: "Making a bouquet?"

She smiled wider with a nod, reaching down to add another spindly yellow stem to the couple of dozen sprigs in her hand, and gushed, "These are so wonderful!"

I looked at the collection: a couple of pale purple buds about as big as your smallest thumbnail, a few of the miniature daisies that grew throughout the neighborhood, and a random scattering of other miniature flowers that would grow and whither along the tracks until the railroad company did their annual mow. A less impressive bouquet could not be assembled unless it featured clumps of overgrown grass, but I was far too impressed with her face to tell her that, so instead, I said, "Great colors. Though pretty common flowers."

"You're so lucky", she replied, looking at them one by one as she continued, "I'm here visiting my aunt. I'm from Hawaii, and all of our flowers are big and bold. I love them, but they're almost ostentatious. We don't have anything like these," and she pointed to the purple buds, just like the patch I had scythed the day before to allow air to flow around our stacked ash lumber. Recalling a few small orange flowers on the backside of the wood pile, far enough from the stack that they were spared from the blade, I walked behind the pile, picked them from the long grass, and offered them for her collection. More delight, more smiles, a quick thank you, and her eyes went back to the ground.

In the movie version of the moment, the act of adding the orange to her bouquet would have allowed our eyes to meet, and the scene would jump-cut to the two of us sitting on the rail sharing a chicken salad sandwich, the roar of the river requiring us to lean in with unexpectedly comfortable intimacy. Sadly, it wasn't a movie. Instead, it was clear she had barely noticed me, my being too big and bold to hold her attention. She moved south through the model train set, and I went out to the trestle to eat my lunch and imagine how the rest of the movie might have gone.

Years later, a friend described her reasons for quitting a landscaping job: She loved working with plants and digging in the dirt, but one day saw her boss ruthlessly tearing up a cluster of flowers. She asked why. "Because they're weeds." She explained that they weren't, naming the flowers that now lay in a dead pile, and he replied, "It's a flower if it grows where I want it to grow. If not, it's a weed."

I suspect we all do that a lot in our lives — deeming something worthy or expendable based on its value to us, not its intrinsic value. I often think about that woman from Hawaii when I'm out walking with my daughter, seven-years old and yet to "learn" how to separate the world into flowers and weeds. I'm glad, because it's amazing how many lovely weeds she is able to find.

©2010 wpreagan

Saturday, June 5, 2010

#134 - The Brighter Side of OCD

The Brighter Side of OCD

6/5/10 (#134)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, commonly known as OCD — especially by people who have OCD and don't have time for so many syllables because there are sock drawers to organize — is the bastard child of logic (the nurturing mother) and insanity (the demanding father.)

This disorder (as clinicians call it — people with OCD call it "hyper-efficiency") is easily misunderstood by people who think that putting the crayons into their cardboard box in correct spectral order is a waste of time. Of course, some adherents to OCD also think that putting the crayons into their cardboard box in correct spectral order is a waste of time, as the satisfaction of even the most attentively ordered rainbow is offset by the frustration of finding a proper home for burnt umber and timber wolf. (I have a functional form of the condition, so my solution for the 64 pack is to populate one of the eight rows of eight with all of the misfits, including black and white; it's unsatisfying, but at least it corrals the dissatisfaction into a single tier.)

If you say to a person with OCD, "I know it seems pointless, but in the spoons slot of the silverware drawer, I stack the three types of spoons in groups so they don't mix," these folks won't roll their eyes or stare in disbelief. Instead, they'll usually respond with some variation of, "As opposed to what, haphazardly tossing them into some willy-nilly collision of flatware? Stacking is the logical thing to do. Duh." Others may even contribute advice: "I used a glue gun and some 1/8" clear plastic strips to subdivide the fork section between dinner and dessert forks. Not only is each type isolated, the plastic wall keeps both piles neatly stacked."

I use this example for a reason, which I will get to in a moment.

To be clear, I have never been diagnosed with OCD. Nor have I ever asked anyone to explore such a diagnosis, because I am not afflicted with any of the symptoms that make OCD an obstacle for my life. (One look at my home office demonstrates that I am not fetishistic about order or cleanliness, as the shelves around my desk look like the aftermath of an explosion at a paper recycling depot.) For some, OCD is genuinely debilitating, and it's not a joking matter. For me, it's more like an idiosyncratic anomaly, a quirk on performance-enhancing drugs.

So back to the spoons. Over the years, our silverware drawer has evolved by necessity only. When we moved into our house a decade ago, we gave ourselves a housewarming gift of a great set of silverware, tossing all of the mismatched pieces we had acquired through hand-me-down generosity or Goodwill necessity. The new set was gorgeous, felt great, and was worth every penny.

In the ten years since, the collection has suffered the standard homeowner attrition, pieces of the collection whisked into the same black hole that consumes single socks and Tupperware lids. Each time the count of a particular utensil type drops below a usable number — that number defined by the inconvenient frequency with which we must wash the remaining items — we purchase a small set to supplement the collection.

We now have three types of spoons: four from the original set, six acquired for a comically low price at Ikea, and four found in the close-out bin at Marshalls. Each is a different size and shape, so when they're randomly placed into the silverware drawers spoon slot, it's an ill-fitting mess. To solve this, I stacked them in like piles after taking them from the dish drainer — the spoons better suited for ice cream, the others for stirring coffee, and the third for meals (though I use those for ice cream, too.) Rather than having to rifle through a disheveled array of utensils every time I wanted a cup of yogurt, the sorted piles saved time and accelerated yogurt enjoyment.

But I was concerned that this preference for order would mutate into a demand for order (I'm even obsessive about my compulsions), so I decided to let go of this one — to let spoons be spoons, freely intermingling within their designated silverware slot. One small step for me, one too-small-to-be-noticed-step for anyone else who opens that drawer. It hardly qualified as a milestone, but I congratulated myself as I closed the silverware drawer. I had tamed the OCD beast.

Until the next morning, when I opened the drawer to get a coffee stirrer and witnessed the utter mayhem that lay before me, the haphazard tangle of spoons looking like it had been picked through by a swarm of indiscriminate yard-sale shoppers. I tried to extricate a stirring spoon from beneath the pick-up-sticks array of flatware, but the pile kept rearranging itself with a frustrating clatter. What had once been a simple matter of sliding out the drawer to make a simple selection had become an annoying game of three-spoon monte, and I was the sucker.

So much for minor victories. I immediately took the time to sort all three types of spoons and stack them neatly within their designated slot. It would have been nice to not care, to take any old spoon for any old task, but the inefficiency was unbearable. I hated giving in to the beast, but what choice did I have? It was the logical thing to do. Duh.

©2010 wpreagan