June 4, 2012

My life has forever changed. My buddy, Les, did it. Early Saturday morning he called me out of a sound sleep and said he had an emergency and had to go out of town for a couple of days. He couldn't take his twin 14-year old granddaughters (who live with him) and asked if they could stay at our house over night. I was half asleep when Les called or I might have realized just what Les was asking and I might have refused.

But we're friends and what are friends for? To be a help in time of need. No problem says I. We once had five college girls living with us and I manage to live through that experience without too many scars. So why not? I tell you why not.

Saturday went just fine. The girls were full of life and we had a good time. Come bedtime they climbed into their sleeping bags and slept in the living room. At least they started the night there. I was tired and slept soundly.

When I got up on Sunday morning my living room couch looked normal, tidy, and ready for inaction. But when I returned a few minutes later, carrying my morning Diet Coke and the Sunday papers, I found that the couch cushions were missing. They had been transformed into a fortress beside the TV. I wasn't ready for this. My life is regular, calm, organized, and predictable. I don't live with children.

The girls changed all that. When the children first came to the house everything they did was adorable. But it wasn't long before the novelty wore off, and the reality of children set in. "What are the cushions doing on the floor?"

Recently, Dana Carney, a psychologist at Harvard, found significant differences in the physical environments of people who identified themselves as conservatives, compared to those who considered themselves liberals. The offices and bedrooms of conservatives tended to be neat and orderly, and contain cleaning supplies, calendars, postage stamps, and framed sports posters. Liberals' boldly colored rooms, on the other hand, were cluttered with art supplies, and strewn with books, jazz CDs, and travel documents. She hypothesized that conservatives tend to be neat, and liberals tend to be slobs.

I am consevative. The girls are liberals.

But I have an alternative explanation for Dr. Carney's findings. Many of the conservatives she studied must have had children. Their offices and bedrooms were their only sanctuaries from the chaos of child-rearing. Their inner-longing for a well-ordered universe drove them to somewhat obsessive behaviors in the few spaces they had absolute control over. If you think the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place, you may have a tendency to seek out more traditional groups, and controllable spaces. But once you have children you soon realize that nothing is any longer predictable or controllable. You have only your office cubicle and spray bottle of Mr. Clean to cling to. You make your bed with military corners, organize your closet by color, from black to gray, but when you step through the bedroom door into the outside world, the children are waiting.

They're drooling, crying, splattering paint, insinuating themselves into every telephone conversation with loud requests for snacks, toys, and police intervention from the wrath of siblings. You try to teach them to clean up after themselves, but even if they have any aptitude for it, it takes them years before they are able to make nearly as much clean as they are able to make it a mess. From all appearances, for most of the time they live with you, your children, unfathomably, act just like ... liberals! Liberals; scattering toys and books, smearing your perfectly white walls and towel sets with their grubby little hands. Liberals; coloring pictures, listening to the latest incomprehensible music, and dancing on the furniture! Liberals; shrieking and chasing the dog through your neatly planted flower beds!

So how do we explain why liberals' bedrooms and offices are so messy? When would they ever have a chance to clean our rooms? They have children! Their children are not the perfectly mannered little children that conservatives have. No, their children have been raised by open minded, tolerant, accepting parents and become ... completely wild. Their science experiments have already set fire to the basement. Their love for color has them finger-painting not just the walls, but, inexplicably, the ceilings as well. They've encouraged them to make friends with many different races, creeds, and kinds of people, and they have, and now they all live at your house.

Even the children of conservatives think their parents are cool, because they can get away with things at our house that they'd never think of doing at theirs. They're building cushion forts in our living room, eating all our food, and surfing my unfiltered high-speed Internet. The girls, who Les has always encouraged to be generous to others, are generously lending out my books, and my music, which they seem to like almost as much as their own, although not enough to ever return any of it to the protective cases and categorized racks where it was originally found.

I can imagine that someday, possibly while I am still alive to enjoy it, my couch will have all of its cushions in place each and every time the girls are around and I wish to lay upon it. The book of poetry I am looking for will be on the bookshelf, not on the floor in the bathroom. The pastries I bought last night to eat for breakfast will be right on the counter where I left them, not a vanquished trail of crumbs leading to the TV set, where my the girls spent the night watching videos and scattering empty wrappers, plates, and cups.

Having children around has turned me into a confirmed conservative (as if I wasn't already). But what I really want to do is make a huge mess and have the girls clean it up.