I had an interesting week off. About ten days ago, purely because I'd recently heard the show's name in a routine by a stand-up comedian and discovered it was available on Netflix, I clicked on an episode of the A&E show "Hoarders," which some of you are probably familiar with. I ended up watching the entire first season one episode after another. Within 48 hours, I had done a lot of internet research, familiarized myself with some of the clinical literature, and read many case histories. As of yesterday I've read three books on the subject (including Gail Steketee and Randy Frost's Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, which is excellent, and which I recommend if you're curious about the topic).
And, last Tuesday, I got a housecall from Brendan McDaniel of Action Organizing Services. Brendan was featured in two of the episodes of "Hoarders" Season 1 (and one in Season 2, although I've not seen that). That was educational for me. He had a lot of ideas, and set me to work.
So why the sudden focus of attention? It's just that I recognized some of the telltales of the pathology in myself. I've always ascribed my "messiness" to laziness and a mild aversion to housework, but as I learned more about hoarding pathology I discerned some parallels to the way I think. While I never anthropomorphize objects, I am sentimental about them—I attach them in my mind to the people they belonged to, or who gave them to me, or that they remind me of—or to old experiences (in other words, ordinary objects become "souvenirs"). Hoarders tend to be visual—they don't organize categorically, like most people do; they remember where things are because they remember where they've seen them. I've long been aware that I have a very visual memory—when I want to remember a person, for instance, I can instantly call up the face and a variety of visual features of the circumstances of my encounters with them, but I struggle—sometimes to an almost absurd degree—to come up with the name (I refer to this, jokingly, as my "proper noun aphasia," and it's one reason why I tend to not give lectures—I stumble when trying to recall names). It's very rare that I see a photograph without knowing whether I've seen it before or not—and, if I have, I can usually remember where. I can remember photography and art exhibits I saw a quarter of a century ago—often, I'll remember individual pictures from exhibits in great detail, without being able to name the year I saw the show or what city I was in at the time. When I was a student, I could find quotations in books by remembering a passage, picturing where it was on the page where I read it, and then "reading" the page number from my memory of what the page looked like. Conversely, I was always poorly organized—if I wrote the same quote on an index card along with the same page number, I'd be very likely to lose the card. I've long realized that when I'm looking for something in the house, I'll "find it in my mind": I just keep thinking about it until I "see," in my memory, where it is. Then I can go right to it.
I also have trouble making decisions, another characteristic of hoarding pathology. Strangely, my mind is usually better organized than the "aids to memory" most other people find useful, like categorizing, filing, and taking notes. I had an aversion to taking notes as a student because I couldn't discriminate between things I'd likely need later and things I wouldn't—anything that was interesting, I'd write down. And putting something in a filing cabinet, for me, is tantamount to throwing it away—it essentially turns permanently invisible to me the instant it goes into the drawer.
And this is kind of funny, but true. I once washed all my shirts in a fit of tidying fervor and hung them in a closet I don't often use. For months afterwards, I wore and washed the same two shirts over and over again, occasionally wondering absentmindedly where the heck all the rest of my shirts had gone.
I have long thought of my photography not just as a method of making "art"—in fact it is hardly that—but as a sort of visual diary: I take pictures to remember experiences, people, places, and things. And then (curiously) I don't actually need to go back and look at them—I remember the pictures. I'm quite certain I remember many thousands of the pictures I've made in my life, going back to 7th grade when I got my first Kodak Instamatic.
Often, when I look at a print I've made, my mind flashes back to the contact sheet, and I recall not just that one picture I'm looking at, but also the other pictures I made before and after it.
My visual memory leads to problems sometimes, too. There was a series of classical CDs I wanted to collect on which the cover photographs were all different shots of the conductor from the same shoot, and I had to give up—at the store, I could never remember which ones I already had at home—they all looked too much alike, and visual differences were what I needed to key in on. And, in the grocery store, if the label of a product changes, I can't "find" the product any more—I know what I'm looking for, but just by visual appearance, not by name or brand.
Goodwill and Ebay
In any event, I'm not a hoarder—something Brendan confirmed for me immediately. Interestingly, Professors Steketee and Frost found that hoarders were very bad at verbally characterizing the level of disorder in their homes, so they (the researchers, I mean) use as a clinical measure a series of photographs of a progressively messier room; they ask their patients to identify the picture that most looks like their own living quarters. If you go again to the book link and scroll down the page a little, you'll find a set of photographs of a living room in which the professors and their graduate students simulated various levels of hoarding disorder. Much of my house is a 2 on that scale; the worst room is a 3, and the kitchen is a 1. Still, when I watch "Hoarders" (the show) I recognize a kinship in kind to some of the sufferers—just not a kinship in degree...
...yet. That scared me, I have to say.
To make a long story short, I took the week off to begin organizing my house—thinking to nip any nascent problem in the bud. I've now made many trips to Goodwill (a charitable resale organization that accepts donations of used items), built a big pile of things to sell on Ebay or Craigslist, and given away many boxes of books. My goal is to reduce the the number of books in the house by roughly a third—at which point I will still have many more books than most of the population! (I think I had about 4,000 as of last week, including roughly 1,200 that are photography-related, directly or indirectly.)
At any rate: the camera cabinet is one of the big challenges I'm facing. It's chock-full of what looks to be junk but as we all know, isn't. Some of the many things I'll be getting rid of are too nice to give away, though, and I thought that, before listing them on Ebay, I'd give my friendly loyal TOP readers a crack at some of them first. At the risk, of course, of worsening your own clutter problem! (I'll leave that to you to deal with.) I'm afraid I will have to end up throwing away a good deal of photo equipment, but I just don't have the time or the patience to list hundreds of small, old, and hurt items on Ebay. These few things are (mostly) the cream off the top.