Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Secret Slob

"You remember I said before that Ackley was a slob in his personal habits? Well, so was Stradlater, but in a different way. Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaned it or anything. He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did. The reason he fixed himself up to look good was because he was madly in love with himself. He thought he was the handsomest guy in the Western Hemisphere. He was pretty handsome, too - I’ll admit it. But he was mostly the kind of a handsome guy that if your parents saw his picture in your Year Book, they’d right away say, “Who’s this boy?” I mean he was mostly a Year Book kind of handsome guy. I knew a lot of guys at Pencey I thought were a lot handsomer that Stradlater, but they wouldn’t look handsome if you their pictures in the Year Book. They’d look like they had big noses or their ears stuck out. I’ve had that experience frequently."
- J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

There are certain passages in literature that stay with a person. They hit upon a deep truth, presenting it in a way you'd never thought about before. And at the tender age of 16, I had that moment with J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Not the whole book (though it was great too) but the specific passage above. Because when I read it, I was finally able to put words to my personal shame: I am a secret slob.

I'm not a secret slob in the "I take great yearbook photos but I'm actually average and have a dirty razor" sense: I'm rarely the most attractive girl in a room or a photo (I do live in Los Angeles, after all), and I take pretty decent care of my personal care items. I mean it in a life sense.  As in, superficially, I am a shining example of success: I have a job that sounds very impressive with a good salary with room for growth, I have a great husband, I have an apartment I love in a neighborhood that should be trendier than it is (which means it's on the cusp of being discovered... and we are therefore the "cool" kids who were here first), I can handle myself in a yoga class, I love the farmer's market and homecooked meals, Jason keeps me up to speed on the cool bands and pop culture happenings, I read the NYT/Atlantic/Economist regularly, I like going to museum and art exhibits, I know where actual microbreweries exist in Los Angeles, and I can even fool people into thinking I have a sense of personal style. In other words, I seem to have some modicum of my sh*t together and I am conversant in the hip buzzwords for urban living.

But secretly, I'm falling apart. Behind the scenes, things are a mess. There's never enough time. I'm always one yoga class away from a panic attack. I'm an intellectual mess, barely finding time to write, to reply to emails, or to cross things off my to-do lists... at work or in my personal life. I barely pull myself together to even make the to-do lists and, when I do, my spur-of-the-moment thoughts are scattered on post-its all around the house, hidden under piles of unopened mail.  In fact, I am a major piler: piles of mail, piles of paperwork, piles of clothes that I tried on and discarded at 7:30am and never bothered to re-hang, piles of books I've been meaning to sell... piles that attempt to contain my messy life into some semblance of precarious order. Piles that a cat can easily knock over as she runs across the table, scattering things in every direction. Piles that become heaping overwhelming mounds until I breakdown and toss half the papers. I actually manage to clean dishes regularly and clean up after the cats and their tumbleweed hairballs (because I may be messy, but I'm not dirty).  But oh, the piles. Any dinner party at our apartment necessitates weeks of planning and, um, hiding piles of crap in closets.

That's right. I'm a secret slob. I live with piles and mess and survive because we have a lot of closet space to hide things when guests come over. But, since the wedding, things have become worse. We had so many piles (gifts, goodwill leftover wedding crap, new photos) that it became emotionally overwhelming to consider having a dinner party. How could we invite people over when we didn't even unpile our new photos or art pieces and get them on our walls? We couldn't. We were failures. We were never going to finish cleaning or decorating our apartment. Instead, I was going to be left with this d*mn Ikea bag full of picture frames on my floor for the rest of my life.

Personal photo, sans pretty effects. Because this bag is real and raw and ugly.

This Ikea bag became everything I hate about my secret slob self. It's full of picture frames and plans that are seemingly abandoned to piles of "someday, I'll get to this." It's bright blue, ugly, and crackles loudly when the cats leap on it. It makes my failures known. It reminds me of all the other piles that are sitting around my apartment, all the other half-done projects. And even worse, it taunts me because I've been trying to get rid of it for months.

The Ikea bag reminds me that, despite all our hard work, the pile never seems to go away. Every seeming step forward feels like zero progress, because the darn bag is still there. Despite braving Ikea in the weeks after our honeymoon (on a Saturday afternoon!!!) and buying 18 picture frames, I still feel like a failure. Despite conquering the painful negotiation of which pictures to choose for our new photo-and-art wall, I still feel like a failure. Despite printing and cutting said pictures to the appropriate size and ordering a large professional print of one, I still feel like a failure. Despite working through our photo layout disagreements and establishing a cohesive design for the wall, I still feel like a failure. Despite several evenings spent with a measuring tape, a leveling tool, hammer, and nails to painstakingly hang each picture, I still feel like a failure. Because the bag is still there. Even when I'm actively trying to eliminate piles... months later, the stupid Ikea bag is still there.

Piles upon piles

Other piles seem to find strength in the Ikea bag's audacity, hanging out with the bag in the corner, smoking a proverbial cigarette and jutting their chins out, daring us to try and organize the chaos. There are two chairs we still haven't built that hang out with the Ikea bag. There are the leftover serving bowls from the wedding that we haven't quite figured out where to store. There's a box of goodwill wedding items. There's a bike that never quite finds its way into the garage. Together, they all stick their collective mound-pile tongue out at me and laugh, knowing that my secret-slob self will continue to deal with it because I have a high tolerance for piles that pile on. 

I'm convinced more people have stuffed-with-piles closets than they're letting on. Because I've been working to get rid of this d*mn Ikea bag for months now, and I can just finally see the bottom of the bag, now that most of the pictures are hung. And it's not like I've been goofing off and ignoring the bag: instead, I'm learning that careful I-love-this-room design takes time. Lots of it. And other life-piles are always lurking to claim immediate deal-with-me precedence over long-term design planning. Like buying groceries. Or doing laundry. Or sudden all-hands-on-deck work deadlines.

The truth is, my piles aren't a public broadcast of my failure. They are a public broadcast of my choices: I choose to live with some level of messiness because I have other things I want to succeed at. And I can't have it all. And I choose to live with some piles because I'd rather cook real food and spend time over dinner with my husband... in addition to everything else. I choose to forgo hiring a maid for a number of reasons but, right now, because I'd rather save money for important dreams like trips, children, and a home. And at the core of it all, I know that if I chip away at the work for long enough, I will conquer a pile or two. Or even an Ikea bag. And all the surrounding piles of crap that can no longer find refuge in our messy corner. 

I am a secret slob. Despite that, I am strong and determined enough to tackle even the most cruel and persistent of piles. The Ikea bag is hording just three measly frames. Its end is near. It will be mere days before I empty it, once and for all, and reclaim a small corner of my life.

Until the next pile encroaches, of course.

 First framed photo success - framing images of flowers (from our wedding and personal travels) to decorate our bed headboard.

Second framed photo success - finally starting to hang photos on our living room wall.


  1. This is hilarious, and makes me feel better about the teetering pile of unopened mail sliding precariously off my own desk.

    I think everybody has their "piles"...and maybe it's a good thing that ours are physical instead of deeper. It means we're prioritizing the Important Stuff, and sometimes the other things just have to wait.

  2. This is a really brave post. And you've described exactly how it feels inside my head. I don't have as many piles as you in my house (although I do have a few huge ones); mine all exist in my brain instead.

  3. Well cut yourself some slack. You really did take on a big project with those pictures. Taking photographs, printing them, choosing among them, blowing one up, choosing frames, and then choosing how to display them is a Project with a capital "P".

    It's not the same as buying a picture and just hanging it on the wall.

    You will get there. You are getting there.

    Anyway, I know lots of people struggle with piles of important junk. I do.

  4. I had a very similar conversation with my fiance about a week ago. I realized that while I aspire to spend more time thinking about what my decorating style is, tracking down those items, putting them up in my house, painting, rearranging... that is not my priority right now. My priorities are work (in order to continue to grow), exercise (to feel good), cook (because I love to), and play with friends and family (because that is what life is all about). There are not enough hours in the day for me to attend to my priorities and make the perfect house a priority as well.

    So...I'm with you. I have piles and closets of items that need to be dealt with and I just try to make forward progress, but it will never be the priority.

  5. Haha, I have one of those very same Ikea bags in our big closet, which is a disaster area--it's full of stuff we rarely use or need to give away or recycle, and all it does is get in the way of the vacuum or cat food bag. I love the feeling of an uncluttered apartment, but like you sometimes I just don't have time. I need to remind myself that the things preventing me from keeping everything nice and orderly (relaxing with my husband, listening to music, reading, whatever) are also important--now that I think about it, generally more important than sorting through my piles of papers on the dining room table.

  6. I don't think this is a failure at all, in any way: so your place isn't done. So what? Maybe it never will be, because even if you hang up every last frame in that bag, someday you may want to change something. Unfinished! It's okay. Imperfection is interesting. I learned this watching HGTV. ;)

  7. From one pile-er to another, this is HUGE:
    "The truth is, my piles aren't a public broadcast of my failure. They are a public broadcast of my choices: I choose to live with some level of messiness because I have other things I want to succeed at."

    I fear I have swung to the other extreme--the decorating and the tidying and the piles get attended to while the BIG STUFF festers--and I will remember this post when I let a pile happen while I, you know, orchestrate a wedding.

  8. I think this kinda stuff can take time. We moved a year ago into this apartment (with almost no closet space) and about two weeks ago I finally put up a photo collage in the hallway. The pictures had been in a stack in the living room for a year. I was waiting til we sanded and painted a wall before doing it, and that happened earlier this month. I feels good to have it done though. (Though I still have a couple more frames to hang and get pictures to get printed and hung.)

    I have a HUGE list of uncompleted tasks and this is my year of working through that. At at least actively trying to wrap some of the projects up. Some of the tasks involve physical piles (like making photo/scrapbooks things of my pictures from childhood through college (all in boxes just waiting)...eek) and some are projects that just need to be completed.

    It's frustrating to me to have so many unfinished things, but slowly I am making progressing. And it is encouraging to hear that you deal with some similar things...thanks for sharing!

  9. Oh the piles of stuff! I have piles of paperwork squirrelled away everywhere which make me feel terrible - especially as I'm supposed to be a professional record keeper and should know better... We also have permanent ikea blue bag on the chair in our hall for weeks and they frequently get used to stash clean but not put away laundry.

    You're not alone!!

  10. OMG! I just remember reading an article that said a study showed that people who do a lot of housework never make high salaries! They get stuck in the middle.

    Oh well. That is some comfort isn't it?

  11. @Barba - I wish it weren't brave. I get really frustrated by the limitations that this facade of perfection creates. So I'm okay with busting it open a bit.

    @Stephanie - Oh, I am in the process of learning that lesson. This is the hardest, longest design project we've undertaken and I had no idea going in. It will be worth it as soon as the Ikea bag is gone. Ha!

    @Amber - In that case, I'm VERY interesting.

    @KA - I know I'm procrastinating when I start to obsessively tidy things. Which usually reminds me that I have to deal with something bigger and ickier. However, tidiness is apparently very helpful for workflow, so maybe it helps with the big stuff? And you saw my physical wedding pile in the DIY post. Don't try and fight it. The wedding mess (mental and physical) will win. But then you win, because you have a wedding, so it all works out.

    @Kiara - tell yourself that you're leaving work at the office and forgive the mess? Or at least try. (Also, I hate folding laundry. I like doing laundry and dishes, but I hate putting things away.)

    @Stephanie - if only it worked the other way around - do little housework and make lots of money...

  12. Oh geez. I feel you. We moved into our house ONE YEAR AGO and we haven't unpacked everything. There is an entire room (albeit a small one, but still) that is ram-packed with piles of stuff just like you mentioned. Most of our art is either piled in this room or leaning against various walls, and we haven't even got to the stage of measuring out stuff on the wall we've chosen to hang it up on. ONE YEAR LATER. It took us 6 months just to finish painting, and we still haven't tackled big projects like kitchen/bathroom. There is an old armchair sitting in the middle of our living room that needs taking to a charity store, and there have been many many weekends when we could have carried it, but still it sits there. There are CRATES of CDs stacked under the stairs, but the shelves hey should go on remain unbuilt, unbought even. The desk in our office nook is covered with - you got it - PILES of paperwork, which I mean to file one day, but just haven't. Instead I repile them. So, I'm totally a secret slob as well.

    But here's the deal. I turned 30 and decided I wanted to celebrate with people I love, so invited everyone over for tea anyway. And the house was unfinished, and the hideous armchair was shoved in a corner with the crates of CDs, and the piles of paperwork were in the armchair nook, but I hung bunting and put flowers around, and had everyone over anyway. And it was fantastic. No one gave a shit about my piles because they all have their own!

    Whenever I start feel panicked that I should have my shit together by now, and see images of people in their 20's and 30's with these amazing homes and lives, I just think of my parents, and how our life was when they were 30. In hindsight, it was full of piles, but that didn't seem to stop them having fun. And over time they got their shit sorted out. I mean, we have a lifetime to do that. If my life was all neatly sorted right now, what on earth would I do for the next 40-50 years?! Actually, I can think of plenty, but what I mean is this whole dealing with piles thing is life, and over time we figure it out. And people present a lot of false fronts. I'm pretty sure the world is full of piles just like yours and mine.

  13. @girl - Yes, yes, 1000 times YES. I think I love you and your 30th birthday tea. I feel like I can have girlfriends over with my mess, but now I want to throw a whole party with bunting, flowers, and piles.

    And I think those images of 20 and 30 somethings with perfect homes must be complete crap, or exaggerated, or at least that all that cleaning and decorating took away from the things that matter more to me than decor. And I forget sometimes to look at my parents' example when they were my age and instead to where they are now. Such good points.

  14. Well, first of all, I saw your title and I said (out load, apparently to the cat)'"Hey! Secret Slob! Like 'Catcher in the Rye!'" Great minds think alike and all.
    Now, I am not a piler. That doesn't mean shit doesn't exist that needs to go away. It's just organized better, that's all. A friend of mine named Scott is like you, a piler. He refers to it as SBP (Scott's Batch Processing). I used to walk into his apartment and see an ENORMOUS pile of mail and would remind him to process his batches. And he would, in his own time. Just as you will. You could call it BBP, for fun.

    Great post, lady.

  15. Throw that party, lady. You won't regret it. :)

  16. I am the same but so very much worse. I need to get rid of so much stuff.

    You have inspired me. There will be much junk removed tomorrow. That is my only plan.

  17. thank you so so so much for writing this. through it i have found out, i too am a secret slob!

  18. I am a piler. Totally. But the Beagle cannot stand piles. He wants things put away in their proper place. I'm learning, but it's not easy. I have boxes and bags of pictures to hang, clothes to alter, painting left half done. But with his help I'm slowly getting better. You have such a strong partnership with Jason, that I'm sure you can help each other get better at completing projects.


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