My new favorite T.V. show is "Hoarding: Buried Alive," or, as my son calls it, "Mom's Future if She's Ever Left Alone for More than a Week."
The show is all about these people who acquire lots of things but never get rid of other things, which is sort of the way I do bulimia. Binging, we get. It's the purge we can't figure out.
As a result, their homes, yards, cars, and kids are all stuffed to the gills with tons of paraphernalia none of us would think of keeping, at least not in bulk. Which I suppose is sort of the point. It’s really about a form of OCD, and I don’t mean to be unkind, although I’m not sure how sensitive the producers or even the participants are to the whole ‘mental illness’ side of things.
The show is on the "Traveling Circus Network," at home on a broadcasting schedule full of midget bakers and mutant procreators whose piety doesn't extend to making a few bucks off their thirty or forty kids.
These folks (the hoarders, not the mutant procreators) live surrounded by vertical acres of clothes, or trash, or Rubbermaid Salad Spinners - whatever they habitually gather, name, and store. The mess is often six or seven feet tall, and sometimes there's no actual path through the forest of collectibles.
The most exciting part of every episode is when a relative who hasn't visited for a decade grabs a whip and an Indiana Jones hat and drops in for tea. There's lots of "what th -?" and invocations of their deity of choice as they machete their way through the living room, according to the ancient Aztec map, anyway.
Invariably, the relative in question says, "I had no idea it had gotten this bad," like they hadn't clued in when their sister missed eight consecutive Thanksgivings because she got lost on her way to the garage.
I wish I could say I watch this show for the message of redemption that emerges around the 37 minute mark. The psychiatrist is called: they assess the situation - concluding that an insurance fire is out of the question now that the whole shebang is on television - and then they bring in a professional organizer who picks up a birthday candle and says, "Let's start with this. Do you think you could part with this?"
And then the client bursts into tears and puts their hand over the camera lens, wailing that it's all too much, too soon.
However, in the last ninety seconds, while the credits run, you see the clients three months later, and behold! They do in fact have a kitchen, complete with table and, in the fancier houses, a floor. So there's always a happy ending.
But being the wicked soul that I am, I confess I watch the show for the same reason I watch "The 900 Pound Tax Accountant" or "There Were Birds Nesting in my Beard: One Woman's Struggle With Hormone Imbalances:"
It makes me feel a little better about myself.
I have known for some time now that I have an unhealthy tolerance for clutter. And I am absolutely notorious for acting on the phrase "I might need that some day."
Rifle through my drawers and you'll find plastic straws intended to fit the lids of long deceased sports bottles; flimsy knife-shaped utensils with the words 'champion pumpkin carver' on the handles; chargers for cell phones who died tragically in the Great Tomato Soup Deluge of '09; and the defunct cell phones themselves, fused and mummified in the starchy paste you get when the soup includes a couple dozen saltines.
Not a single useful item in the whole lot, but I know that as soon as I throw anything away, I'm going to need it.
Someone will show up at the door, wringing their hands and gasping that Somalian pirates are holding their grandmother and she'll walk the plank if they don't have an assortment of reindeer-shaped cookie cutters by sundown. And I'll have to tell them, "I'm so sorry. If only you'd come by yesterday..."
I have a good fifty thousand photocopies of musical arrangements I've done, all boxed up in the bonus room and stored against the day that there is a sudden, desperate need for "Winter Wonderland" in four parts with optional kazoo chorus.
And when the crisis comes, I'll be ready.
Elbowing my way through the frantic crowd, distributing stapled pages to the singers and handing out kazoos, I'll finally be honored for my brilliant never-throwing-anything-away skills. The Real 'Miracle Worker.' The Helen Keller of Keeping Stuff. That's what they'll call me.
In this rare photograph, Helen Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan asks her,
"Helen, how many pizza boxes does one girl really need?"
And according to witness reports, Helen replies, "Beats me. How many you got?"
And yet, in that tiny, rarely visited, sane corner of my psyche, I know that the odds of that happening are, like, three-to-one. Maybe even five-to-one.
I know that I probably should toss out most of that music, that I could safely empty my cupboards of the mason jars and metal lids that speak to a domesticity that never was and never will be, that there would be no harm in dumping my 1986 edition of "Microcomputers in the Classroom" which I held on to because I believed my professor when he said that programmers would be the only employable survivors in the new millennium.
And occasionally, I actually do it. Purge whole bookcases of paperbacks. Give away scores of videos and action figures. Offload entire wardrobes of skirts and jeans and holiday sweaters that were embarrassing my kids fifteen years ago.
I achieve 'empty,' and it feels great.
Not only that, I can honestly tell myself that no matter how cluttered things get, no matter how many of my rooms and closets devolve into small appliance graveyards and the places where everything else in my house goes to die, it will never be bad enough to qualify for a reality show.
That's a comforting thought, particularly since I don't know how I'd squeeze it in. I've got to get ready for my annual trip to the coast, where I put on a bikini and parade up and down the beach, basking in the collective "Whew!" from all the other sunbathers who suddenly don't feel quite so bad about that box of cookies hidden under the towel.
After the good vibes I get off the HBA stars, it's my way of giving something back.