May 30, 2010

Blessed Is the Mess

Cleanliness is much overrated. Order too. Unfortunately for me, I live with a partner obsessed with cleanliness (she thinks of the dishwasher as a sort of autoclave where dishes are placed for sterilization after they are washed with copious quantities of soap) in a country noted for its historical obsessions with "order", a few wonderfully chaotic exceptions like my ex-nephew notwithstanding. I've never bought into that "next to godliness" nonsense, and I've always found that undisturbed paper strata on my desk, tabletops and window sills are a very cost-effective archiving strategy, but once in a while I'll let myself get tricked into a bit of spring cleaning. Always a bad idea, and today was no exception. I figured that after not seeing the naked ground under the present blanket of snow, I might fight cabin fever by getting the jump on spring and cleaning a bit now. Also, more than a year and a half after moving into the new house and offices, I figured it was time to unpack a few boxes.

One of the first things I found was an unopened Christmas letter from a cousin with urgent questions regarding our joint genealogy research which require my translation skills. He decided to send his query as a letter instead of the usual e-mail. I suppose I'll answer his question, but as a matter of courtesy to his wife, I'll check to be sure he's still alive. The letter was dated Christmas 2001, and I figure he's about 85 now.

The note from the IRS dated 2007 requesting that I clear up some matter isn't nearly as old, so I figure it still has time. I won't owe them anything, but I suppose I'll have to explain that to them before I turn 85 or change my citizenship.

There was a mysterious check for $73.48 from the year 2000. A refund for God-knows-what. Written to me at an address where I have never lived. Or so I thought; the address might be for a small office apartment I rented once. Maybe it's a refund on a deposit of some sort. Unfortunately, the bank on which it was written no longer exists. Washington Mutual melted down some time ago.

Somewhat more encouraging was the deposit slip from a business checking account which I forgot about when I left the country more than 10 years ago. It's probably been closed and the funds sent to some custodial account with the state of Oregon. At least that's what used to happen in California. So if I find the time to research the matter, there may be a bonus of some hundreds or thousands of dollars waiting for me. Perhaps I can buy that drilling after all.

Then there were the old court records detailing my attempts to enjoy a holiday with my daughter after I moved to Germany. Mostly it didn't work, despite the fact that I won every court case. De facto joint custody doesn't mean much here if you are a man. My favorite paper was the "contract" I signed pledging my dog as a hostage and promising not to leave Europe during two weeks of vacation. Can't risk the kid spending time with cousins, y'know. She might get the idea that there are real people outside of Lower Saxony.

The consulting contract I discovered in which I was to receive a percentage of revenues for sales of software in the Netherlands appears to be in force still. I think the board member who signed it neglected to cancel it when he was purged 6 years ago. Who knows? Maybe I can get a Maserati after I collect the overdue commissions and interest. Or at least a used 4WD jeep that can make it through a muddy field. But I don't look forward to the hassle of enforcement.

So the day is shot and tomorrow's translation is still on the to-do list. No sense of accomplishment at having emptied three of the twenty or so boxes taking up half my office. I'm not sure I want to know what surprises the rest hold. Some might find the accumulation oppressive, but I see it quite the opposite: let it rest in peace.

Colleague Chris Irwin comments:
Despite having a good idea of the exemplary and logically-reasoned thinking that you variously demonstrate in the 'how-tos' on your profile, in your blog, in various other forums and indeed in the course of chats together, I feel that you are (unusually) lost for the right word here.

it is in fact so: the "mess" represents a deeper order. In my case, that order is deeper than the Marianas Trench.

I think that you should mention that word to any cynics, be they domestic or otherwise: It is quantum physics. Tell them that the mess is a causal dynamical triangulation and challenge them to argue.

(a repost of the original contribution on the Watercooler, February 2010)


  1. If indeed self-defence is deemed necessary, feel free to quote to your dearly beloved the case of an engineer friend over here, who uses his dishwasher for innovative operations such as cleaning gearboxes.

    As for the quantum theory, I agree, but prefer to confront domestic cynics with positive statements such as how I am on the brink of a quantum breakthrough in mapping a parallel universe that may look baffling to the untrained eye.

  2. She tells me I'm in hot water now, because her assistant came by while I was in Zurich and ratted me out that the office shower was full of blood. I had to butcher a deer shortly before running out the door to catch the train and forgot to clean up. But maybe by the time she gets back from Hungary or the Netherlands or wherever she is at the moment with the three vizslas (a new one was picked up in Hungary, is on his way to a date with a hot bitch in Holland) all will be forgiven. It is, after all, part of the creative process....


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