Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Keep the Butter Square!"

I seem to have inherited from my father not only my first name, and my profession in the ministry and college teaching, but also my habit of wanting to make everything neat, orderly, and symmetrical.

At mealtime, in our family home as I was growing up, the butter was placed in a dish to pass around the table as needed. I think this was before we were buying the spread packaged in four quarters, so it was in a larger shape like a cube protected by an ancient pewter cover. To butter our bread, boiled potatoes, or whatever, we would take our knife and dig out a gob of butter, only to hear my father admonish us to “Keep the butter square!” He preferred that the butter in the serving dish not become misshapen, but remain neatly squared off.

This trait stayed with Dad till the end of his life. One incident stands out. When I was the pastor of a small-town church, he and my mother visited for a Sunday worship service. Seated on the platform after the service had begun, I noticed Dad in the congregation making a sideways motion with his outstretched hand. It turned out that the flower stand and pulpit chair on one side of the platform were not symmetrical with those on the opposite end. He was trying to get me to make the necessary adjustment then and there, to restore the proper order of the furniture.

This penchant for having things orderly and organized has been one of my lifelong character traits. Books must be shelved by topic and subtopic, and within the subtopic organized by author’s name. Vinyl records or music CDs must be organized by composer and genre, and a list made of all music so I can consult it when considering a new purchase, in order to avoid duplication, without going to another part of the house where they are stored.

Memorabilia must be boxed by life periods, in sequence. All other stored items, such as railroad ephemera (a hobby of mine), computer equipment, or unused kitchenware must be placed logically into cartons and labeled. I prefer the type of carton with a removable lid, like the cartons used to ship reams of copy paper, and have collected enough over the years to contain anything that will fit into them. I never throw away a good carton, and have stacks of folded cartons stored in a shed for possible future use.

When I moved to a new home some years ago, I installed seven large metal shelves in the basement to store such items, each loaded with clearly labeled cartons grouped by similarity of contents. When I held an open house welcoming friends to my new residence, people would go downstairs to inspect the basement. Cries of “Oh, my God!” could be heard as they registered their shock at what they witnessed down there.

The urge to organize and sort affects my use of the computer, as well. I don’t understand how people can load up their cameras or cell phones, or their computers, with thousands of images none of which have a caption that would explain, to the outsider, the subject and date of the image. I have standard methods of naming photo files that enable me to quickly find what I want. For family photos, for example, the file name begins with the date (year-month-day) and then the subject. A photo of my wife and me in front of a locomotive is labeled “2015-09-26_Richard_ Shirley_at_Monticello_Rwy_Mus.tif.” That way, when I sort by name I am also sorting by date. Of course, photos from each branch of our large family are kept in their appropriate sub-subfolders, under the proper subfolder, under the master “Images” folder in my hard drives (I back up everything to two other computers). I don’t keep every image I take of a subject; I pick out the best one or two and then get rid of the rest. Why do some people keep every shot, whether blurred, off-center, duplicative, or whatever, and then even put them on Facebook?

And I don’t like what the various versions of Windows do with downloads, scans, etc. Since I’m the only user of my computers, I don’t use the “My Documents,” etc. folders; I put everything in an appropriately named folder on the main “C” drive. It annoys me when some piece of software, such as a printer program, automatically puts my scans into “My Scans,” in “My Documents,” in my User folder, and assigns it some goofy name of its own. I have to go and locate it, cut it out to where it should go, and rename it according to my naming conventions.

Okay, call me compulsive if you like. I’ll tell you one thing, though: when I need to locate something I know where to find it, whether it’s in bookcases or storage shelves or the computer. “OCD” can pay off if you use it wisely; in the end it can save time and trouble.

Besides, I have a theological justification for my efforts. When God began to create the earth it was “without form and void”; what he did during the days of creation was to bring symmetry (e.g., light and darkness) and labeling (“God called the light day,” etc.) into what had been unordered and unlabelled. Then, finally, he could “rest” in his temple and enjoy his good work. By ordering our lives we participate in the Creator’s work; at least, that’s how I think of it. So when my open house guests encountered the order and organization of my basement, their reaction, “Oh, my God!” was not entirely inappropriate.

And, of course, it’s also good policy to keep the butter square.