Back at the Inn – 6:* In search of smaller containers


Most of those who have shared living space with me over the years have been too kind to mention my quirk of putting everything into the tiniest possible containers. In the kitchen, I stock the latest purchases, after having stripped them of their store packaging, in the smallest polystyrene containers that will hold them. (Often small bits of food that exceed the capacity of the storage box are disposed of in my open-mouth.) Feeling that this might offend some observers, or at least seem odd, I volunteer, often in the act, my reason, namely that I have a very small apartment, kitchen, and fridge, and I'm trying to keep things uncluttered as best I can. Usually this makes absolutely good sense that a certain level, but I suspect it leaves the listener still a bit curious about my knee-jerk repackaging obsession. I never found that my habit was infectious. My interns will leave the last little scrap of baloney in the original large plastic wrapper that it wore home from the supermarket with a dozen companions.

It is not just about perishables in the fridge or storables in the kitchen larder – that's just the tip of the iceberg, likely to be most visible to roommates and visitors. The same compulsion obtains for paperclips, rubber bands and other office items in and on my desk as well as for clothes-closet management. Here, my excuse is that I have to get rid of all the clutter if I'm going to do some serious work and, now the technology is my desktop, I have to get rid of the clutter there, too, do all the little work first so that I can get down to the big stuff. I know that this violates all the best advice on time management, but I have yet to escape my habit.

There is a story about this tidying up in preparing for a big job that sticks in my mind as a sort of justification. It's told that Ernest Hemingway met Marlena Dietrich at a party in New York, and Marlena mentioned to him that she was starting to write a novel. A few months later their paths crossed at another event, and Pap Hem asked her, "Have you cleaned out all of your closets yet?" Her response: "How did you know?"

Researching the roots of this behavior in my personal history, I come up with a lot of theories, but no smoking gun. I have no obvious evidence clear enough to impel me to shout out, "Yessss, that's it!" Here are some of my guesses that largely don't pan out. In birth and babyhood, we had the smallest single house that I can remember seeing until the recent postings of stackable migrant camp dwellings. The house on Forest Drive where I lived from birth until I was two or three years old was certainly smaller than my 55 m² apartment today. I can't remember much of its layout from the perspective of crawling on the kitchen linoleum floor, but I do know that it had a trapdoor in the entryway leading down to the basement that was to be avoided. Revisiting the neighborhood a few years ago, I discovered that a more recent owner had added an extra room and a single car garage.

My parents and my grandfather who lived with us were relatively tidy though they tended to hold on to things that "might come in handy someday." So, other than the occasional admonition to pick up after myself, re-boxing did not seem to be per se part of the family culture. True, there still is stuff that I don't have any immediate use for and yet can't bear to discard (yet), winds up in the basement or the garage. On a couple of occasions floodwaters have destroyed this cache and my insurance company has paid for it assuaging my separation anxiety. So, intermediary storage has accidentally been a profitable strategy, partly due to my dislike of clutter and probably at least peripherally related to my love for the small.

Another speculation has to do with the religious upbringing in Catholic school, where guilt about peccadillos seemed to outweigh enthusiasm for the great ideals of the faith, engendering a sort of fear of missteps and self-pillorying when they occurred. Scrupulosity was always a danger and took up a lot of emotional energy. I have sometimes thought that being scrupulous about housecleaning and decluttering might either be a relative of this anxiety or a release for it.

I'd like to imagine that I was driven by the ecological wisdom of Ernst F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful and precociously shared his insight, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” However, my habits were well-established before he wrote those words and consciousness of ecological distress was very widespread. There may be a bit of truth to the fact that having been born toward the end of the Great Depression, the lack of abundance made as treasure small things. I remember hearing, Dad, that in those days if you were lucky enough to land an odd job paying 25¢, mowing someone's overgrown lawn, it was enough to buy a loaf of bread, a quart of milk, and a pound of hamburger. Maybe someone should have written a book at that time called Little is Big.

I have speculated that perhaps smaller things are somehow perceived by our minds is less dangerous than larger things, thus more manageable and more desirable. Maybe there is one source of my proclivity hidden in the reptile brain. But, there is an element in tiny things that stirs my dopamine, namely that they are "cute" and often fascinating masterpieces of miniaturization. Besides my boxing mania I do have quite a. few tiny treasures that I am attached to. I remember once, when you were able to afford an very well used automobile, that you were driving us over the high-level bridge leading into downtown Cleveland. Peering out the window at first-time sights, I saw a large collection of toy cars parked on the Flats under the bridge. Now that you had a job in the steel mill in the Flats and came this way daily, I begged, "Daddy, when you come home from work would you bring me one of those little cars?" You laughed and told me that those were real cars parked down there, just like the one we were riding in, and that they looked small because they were so far away – my first lesson in perspective!

Related to this yet unsolved mystery of my psyche, however, I also tend to think that my dislike of abstractions is connected to my love of the small and the intimate. Abstractions are like the big nameless cardboard box into which my toys got chucked when it was cleaning day, uninteresting in themselves they often cruelly hid, jumbled and confused their contents, while they restrained our ability to play in real time with each other.

*For those who did not see my earlier posts, The Inn at the End of the Universe is the title I have given to post-mortem discussions with family and friends occurring in an Inn on the outskirts of heaven–my alternative view of the Last Judgement. The introduction and first installments are to be found in my most recent online collection of poems and reflections, Spring Fevers.


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