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Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Perfect Mess

Sigmund Freud was once asked about the hidden meaning of smoking cigars, of which he was fond. He responded in effect that a good cigar was merely a smoke. Of course, any simple thing can be made impossibly complex if we put our minds to it. But in science as well as in practical affairs, it is the opposite that is cherished, as the devil can truly be found in too many details.

The ability to find profundity in the trivial and complexity in the simple represents a sort of conspiracy theory for the facts of life. From crop circles to who shot Kennedy, the simple and obvious solution fades before the grand and complex theory that merits at least a spot on the Discovery channel.

Consider if you would a simple mess, such as the mess of papers on your desk, or the mess of clothes in your closet, or the other messes from dishes to taxes that you have to sort out. The incremental accumulation of things that individually need to be eventually sorted, classified, or even thrown out are best not handled individually, but in batches. It's simply more efficient to do things that way. These accumulations, or messes, are thus necessary things that are dispatched all at once. Of course, different people have different time tables for their own messes, as for a housewife that pile of dishes in the sink must be dispatched as soon as dinner is done, but for the husband it doesn't call for action until the last clean spoon is gone. This cleaning threshold, which represents the tipping point when messes trigger their remedy, is a matter of personal preference. But a mess nonetheless remains a mess, until of course academic types get a handle on the concept and make a mess of it, as the new book 'A Perfect Mess', by Messrs. (pun fully intended) Abrahamson and Freedman demonstrates. Thus we learn from examples culled from urbanology to catastrophe theory that messiness is in fact a virtue. Of course the serendipity that is so important to motivation and cogitation is generally derived from the messes we confront daily that we call the process of living. But neatness has a role in this too. Indeed, what is life but the continuous interplay between the yin of orderliness and the yang of chaos (or messiness if you would). In this regard, the authors are only half right. But overall, I would gather that it is not messiness that concerns the average joe (or jane), but who is going to clean it up, and when the wheel is turned temporarily to order, how much time do I have to watch sports on TV before the dishwasher or dryer or crying baby signals a return to an invigorating or infuriating disorder that can otherwise be called a complete mess.

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