One of my all-time favorite essays is Suzanne Britt’s “Neat People vs. Sloppy People.” It’s perfect when I’m exploring the structure of compare/contrast essays in my College Composition classes, especially as I explain a subject-by-subject approach. The first half of her essay focuses on sloppy people; the second half, neat people.
But what I like far more than the essay’s rhetorical structure is Britt’s unexpected humor.
Obviously, it’s not unexpected humor for me because I have taught the essay for decades, and, for what it’s worth, the essay is as fresh and as funny today as it was when I first read it in her Show & Tell (1983).
But it is unexpected humor for my students. Here’s why. Britt sets the stage brilliantly with nothing more than the essay’s title. Tell the truth. In your own mind, don’t neat people always win out over sloppy people?
Of course! Neat people always come out on top. And in her essay, they even come out first in the title. We’re all programmed to value neatness over sloppiness. My students are, too.
So I like to build on the assumptive beliefs that Britt puts into motion with nothing more than the title. When I assign the essay–but before my students have read it–I ask them to jot down whether they are neat or sloppy.
Also, I ask them to jot down whether I am neat or sloppy. I know fully well that they will put me into the “neat” category. When I am at the college, I always wear a shirt and tie (or jacket, shirt, and tie) and real, polished dress shoes. (Mine are real because they have genuine leather soles.) My students are convinced that’s how I dress when I’m weeding or when I’m weedwhacking or when I’m splitting wood with a maul. Shirt. Tie. Real shoes with genuine leather soles. No doubt about it. I’m in the “neat people” category.
My students read the essay. When they come back to class prepared to discuss both categories–neat and sloppy–they are gobsmacked.
Let me explain.
Britt is soft–really soft–in her discussion of sloppy people, and, indeed, she defends their sloppiness: “Sloppy people, you see, are not really sloppy. Their sloppiness is merely the unfortunate consequence of their extreme moral rectitude. Sloppy people carry in their mind’s eyes a heavenly vision, a precise plan that is so stupendous, so perfect, it can’t be achieved in this world or the next. […] Someday is their métier. Someday they are planning to alphabetize all their books and set up home catalogs. Someday they will go through their wardrobe and mark certain items for tentative mending and certain items for passing on to certain relatives of similar size and shape.”
And in the second half of her essay, Britt comes down hard–really hard–on neat people. She’s exaggerating, of course, but my students aren’t expecting her extreme exaggeration, even though they all chime in, announcing that someone in their family is “just like that.” Here’s an example: “Neat people have cavalier attitudes toward possessions, including family heirlooms. Everything is just another dust-catcher to them. If anything collects dust, it’s got to go and that’s that. Neat people will toy with the idea of throwing the children out of the house just to cut down on the clutter.”
Her exaggerated ending is just as comical: “Neat people […] are so insensitive. After they’ve finished with the pantry, the medicine cabinet, and the attic, they will throw out the red geranium (too many leaves), sell the dog (too many fleas), and send the kids off to boarding school (too many scuff marks on the hard-wood floors).
It goes without saying that my students remain 100% convinced–really convinced–that I’m in the “neat people” category.
However, their eyes widen and their mouths open when I disclose that I am unequivocally in the “Sloppy People” category. I offer up solid evidence. I have every personal letter that I have ever received. I have every canceled check that I have ever written. I have all of my federal and state income tax returns. I have my father’s last bottle of cologne (Avon–Wild Country, still fragrant after 40 years). I have my mother’s last tube of toothpaste (Close-Up, still squeezable after 12 years). I have my late partner’s last pack of chewing gum (Spearmint– Rain, still tempting after one year and six months). Need I go on? I agree. Thank you. I’ll spare you and me.
Needless to say, down through the years as I gathered up all of these treasures (and, let me add, they are treasures)–evidence of lives lived; of lives well lived; of stories in the making; or of stories waiting to be written–my motives were pure and noble. And they still are as I continue to gather up treasures.
But a few months ago, I started seeing tell-tale signs of a type of sloppiness that has nothing at all to do with my extreme moral rectitude–the underlying reason why I keep all the things that I can’t bear to toss away as of no worth.
I wonder sometimes whether some of my emerging, non-moral sloppiness isn’t downright laziness.
I mean, like … maybe everyone does some of the things that I discovered that I was starting to do. I hope so, but I doubt it.
Let me toss out some examples. You decide.
In early spring, I pruned an evergreen tree outside my bedroom window. When I finished, I returned my shears to the basement, but I had the brilliant idea that since the ladder was out, I should go ahead and polish the windows on that side of the house. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time right then. So I folded the step ladder and left it on the edge of the walkway. Sadly, way led on to way, and well over a week later, I was still walking around the ladder lying on the walkway, still somewhat in my way.
Here’s another example. Emails. Yes. I keep all of the personal, meaningful ones in virtual folders. No problem. But what about all of the other ones that I could delete and be done with? Why don’t I just go ahead and delete? I don’t, and I don’t know why. Or what about the ones that require–and will get–a straight forward response? Why not respond right then? Your guess is as good as mine. I have a tendency to wait until the next day so that I can think about the response that requires absolutely no depth of thought at all and that will get no depth of thought at all.
And then there’s the real mail, the printed stuff that I find in my mailbox. Most of it is junk mail, of so little interest to me that sometimes I let it accumulate and ride along for several days as the passenger in my Jeep before bringing it into the house and tossing it into the trash where it belonged in the first place.
And what about the real estate tax bill that I discover when I sort through the stack of junk mail that’s been riding along with me? I always look at the due date and inevitably decide to wait a few days or so before paying. Why? I have no idea. It would be so simple to just write the check and check that item off of my to-do list.
This self-discovery, folks, was troubling and troublesome. Somehow, I knew that I had to reconcile the sloppy side of me that Britt celebrates with this sloppy/lazy side of me that causes crimson as I cringe.
Fortunately, I remembered a perfect solution that had been hiding out in my cluttered mind–yes, it’s sloppy, too–all along. Years ago, when I was the Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office, I worked closely with Copyright’s executive officer. Her office was lean, mean, and sparse. Nothing was out of place.
“How on earth do you manage to keep your office like this?”
Her response? “Only handle it once.”
I have always remembered her approach even if I have not always applied it.
But as I thought about this post, I did some quick research to see what else I might find out about the wisdom that Grace Reed shared with me.
Come to find out, “only handle it once” is a well-known management tool that’s been around for decades and decades.
It’s commonly referred to as OHIO: Only Handle It Once.
Guess what? I’ve been using it to save myself from becoming the sloppy/lazy person that I am hell bent on not becoming.
Guess what else? It’s working really well.
Let me prove it to you. Hang on a sec. I’ll be right back after I do a quick walk through of my home.
That didn’t take long, did it? Thanks for waiting.
I am ecstatic because I only found three things that I had not disposed of properly when I handled them the first time. A can of spray paint by the kitchen door leading to the deck. (Later today, I’ll throw the can away after I paint the table on the deck.) A brush cutter replacement blade at the top of the stairs leading to the utility room downstairs. (I would have been back sooner, but you will be pleased to know that I took the time to put the blade on its designated hook in the utility room.) A post card eye-exam reminder smack dab on the edge of my dining room table. (Voila! I made it disappear. Who needs it now, anyway? My appointment is bright and early tomorrow.)
My efforts to avoid toppling into the abyss of lazy sloppiness have made me so ecstatic–so euphoric–that I may well have reached a near state of mystic self-transcendence, and I want to stay in that state. For that reason–and that reason alone–as I move ahead, rest assured that I will keep OHIO on my mind.