Jan Stafford Kellis

When in Doubt, Alphabetize

When in Doubt, Alphabetize

I’m a control freak and I know it. I not only know it, I embrace it as I strive to find one tiny corner of this chaotic world to organize, introducing order to a previously discombobulated system, even if it was working just fine before I meddled. The uncontrollable urge to organize doubtless passed to me through my ancestors, as evidenced by their carefully filed and preserved photographs, newspaper articles and personal journaling efforts, crated in separate boxes and totes, clearly labeled and neatly stacked in the Family History section of the basement storage room.

Each organizational challenge presents specific goals (why does it need organization? To preserve my sanity!) and categorizational options (should I organize spices by type–baking vs. cooking–or by age–the oldest to the front, the fresh stuff in the back–or by size of container–short to tall or tall to short?) and sometimes this attention to detail, for which I have been praised by teachers, bosses and strangers on the street, becomes a handicap and the details threaten to suffocate me even as I determine which details are worthy of attention. Organizing the spices will save hours while I cook and bake, reaching confidently to the proper shelf for each spice and seasoning, proving the reward is measurable and attainable, fully justifying the mental effort I’m dedicating to the organizational system. The spice cupboard presents its own challenges with its swinging multi-tiered unit featuring narrow, stationary shelves, able to accommodate only 65.7% of my spices in their original jars. A brief search on the internet provides enough information to decide I am not ready to invest in a set of spice jars, so the organizational method is already compromised by the existing shelf and jar sizes, precluding sorting by age or type of cooking. Organizing by size is still an option, at least for those jars that will fit on a shelf.

After several hours of brainstorming and sketching, considering and rejecting various plans, after reviewing some recipes to see if I even have all the spices I need (I don’t), and after planning the menu for the next week during one particularly long recipe book sojourn, I put the spices in their rack organized by size, smallest ones on the top and tall ones on the bottom, each shelf alphabetized by common name of spice (mustard seed comes before nutmeg).

The task complete, the first flush of satisfaction is suddenly compromised by the realization that the laundry supplies have been thoughtlessly plopped on the shelf with no regard to order of application or even amount left in the containers. A half-full jug of detergent towers next to a spray bottle of stain remover, fully concealing the sample-size package of dryer sheets. A frenzied reshuffling quickly results in a properly organized laundry supply shelf, with various stain removers (alphabetized by brand name) on the far left, then detergents, softeners and dryer sheets standing bravely, at the ready for the next chocolate-, grass- or wine-stained garments, my friend the alphabet quietly taming each section of shelf.

It’s finally time to relax, so I grab my book and head for my favorite chair. My eyes stray from the page several times, the DVDs across the room snagging my attention as I confirm that which I already knew: they are hopelessly out of order, some even placed backwards so the title isn’t visible. Who would be so careless? A frantic recitation of the alphabet aids in rearranging the titles at double-time speed. The restored order works like a tonic, allowing my blood pressure to descend back to normal range and my disorder anxiety (quite different from an anxiety disorder, but debilitating nonetheless) quiets to its usual thrum.

Lunch time passed some time ago–finally noticing my stomach’s repeated bids for attention I open the fridge in search of sandwich fixings, confronted instead by complete culinary chaos. Why are the dressings not corralled as a group in their door pocket? Who in the world placed the mustard (condiment section) near the milk (beverage section)? How is one expected to locate butter, hidden as it is behind the jumbo-sized mayonnaise?

Lunch will be served late today…one more corner of the world requires immediate action.

2 thoughts on “When in Doubt, Alphabetize

  1. Teacher/Learner

    I sympathize as I too am an organization freak. I also shelve my DVDs alphabetically. Quite a task–nearly 500!–so thankfully, as my friends chortle sarcastically, they’re in working order. A backwards facing DVD, you say? Horrors! :oD

    By the way, how do you shelve your books? I’ve seen & heard of many systems. I don’t have enough books to be that organized yet…

  2. Jan Kellis

    Thank you for your comment! It’s so exciting when I receive comments here. Maybe if I posted more often I’d attract more interest…

    Anyway, I shelve my books first in broad sections (for instance, a section for gardening, one for writing, one for literature, etc) and then by the author’s last name, then by title if I have more than one book by an author.

    I drastically downsized my book collection when we built a new house six years ago, but I’m starting to amass a healthy number of books again and will soon require new book shelves from IKEA. I don’t like books to be crowded; I want space for a few photos or other objects here and there to add interest and prevent the books from losing themselves on the broad shelf.