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Nurturing Spontaneity, or Why I Love “The Odd Couple” by Ben Mattlin

October 24, 2017

My current attendant recently asked if he could leave a couple hours early on Friday.  No big deal, right? But lifelong wheelchair-user that I am, the seemingly reasonable request set off a Rube Goldberg-esque string of intricate thought processes and planning revisions.

To me, living with a disability has always meant a certain lack of spontaneity.  I feel I have to plan ahead for everything.  Whenever I try to loosen up and go with the flow, I feel I end up screwed somehow.  Maybe it’s just me.

In this case, I was thinking about how I usually wash my hair on Friday afternoons.  And if my Friday afternoon was to be cut short, I’d either have to push the shampoo to earlier that day or move it to another day, or skip it.  The first option seemed problematic, since Fridays are always busy with bed-changing, laundry, and other chores to get ready for the weekend.

Option #3, skipping it, would mean having an itchy scalp.  So instead, I thought I’d just do the shampoo on Thursday.  Which meant I wouldn’t do it on Wednesday, because that would be too soon.  I’d go for Tuesday and Thursday. 

Yes, my life is overly structured and I am perhaps too rigid.  Doubtless this is a defense mechanism I’ve adopted as a lifelong crip.  Sometimes it’s the only way I feel I have control over my life.

Growing up, I hated that I was this way.  I wanted to be cool and easy-going and spontaneous.  But I never could be, really, because I couldn’t just do things without involving someone else.  The only way I could do most things was to ask someone for help. 

Creating “Artful Messiness”

When I was in middle school, I recall, I actually asked my attendant to place one of my socks over my bedroom lampshade.  The angle had to be perfectly rakish.  And just one sock, not the pair.  There was other artful messiness, too, the details of which are lost.  But overall, the idea was to give my room the air of someone more devil-may-care than I could ever hope to be.  It was part of a kind of scene setting, a window-dressing for my unexpressed self-improvement project to become less structured, more easy-going.

Around that time, I fell madly in love with Neil Simon’s comedic masterpiece The Odd Couple.  To me, it was the perfect expression of the dichotomy between organization and freethinking. It became my bible.

The play, of course, inspired at least two TV series, a movie, and a reboot with women in the place of men.  Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who thought highly of the original script.  My paperback copy of the Samuel French publication became tattered as I carried it everywhere.  I read it over and over, memorized huge portions, combed through its words to unlock its secrets.

If you don’t know, it’s about two divorced men who end up sharing an apartment in New York.  One is sloppy, the other a neatnik.  But there’s so much more to it.

The Slob vs. the Neatnik

Felix, the neatnik, is perhaps what we would now call obsessive-compulsive.  He likes things tidy, balanced, organized, and on time.  More than that, he berates people who don’t meet his high standards.  He’s also a bit of a hypochondriac, periodically emitting “moose calls” to clear his sinuses. This is the character I feared I resembled. 

Oscar, on the other hand, is laid-back in the extreme.  He knows how to have a good time.  Yes, he’s unreliable and uncleanly.  He loves his kids (whom we never see) but is always late with the alimony and child-support checks.  You can’t depend on him, but there’s always a good time and free-flowing booze at his place.

Now that I’m older, I think I was probably right.  There’s a lot in Felix that I recognize in myself, a fact of which I’m not proud.  I wanted to be more like Oscar.  Not irresponsible, but not so inhibited and uptight (as we used to say).

In the years since, I like to think I’ve loosened up somewhat.  I’m still fairly organized and have to consciously calm myself down when things don’t go according to plan.  But I hope I’ve gained the self-confidence to know that I’ll be okay and things will work out even if they don’t go exactly according to plan.

And if my hair has to go dirty an extra day or two, that’s okay.  I’ll just enjoy the next shampoo all the more.

One response to “Nurturing Spontaneity, or Why I Love “The Odd Couple” by Ben Mattlin”

  1. Gary Presley says:

    I’ve been paralyzed for 50+ years. I think the element of “organization” is a matter of control — not only for convenience and the ability to accomplish things but also for the idea that we (who need help for routine things) can project the illusion of control.

    To be a crip involves the realization that you are dependent for sometimes minor things. It’s an ugly truth that’ll eat a hole in your stomach if you let it.

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