Who, me, disorganized?

How did I go from an organizational phenomenon to one who forgets everything?

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I used to be laughed at for two things: my orderliness and my punctuality. From homework to shopping to professional appointments to the maintenance schedule for my car, I was always - and I mean always - Johnny-on-the-spot: never late, never incomplete, and never in arrears. I could get in my car for a 500-mile trip and tell the host at my destination that I would be there in 10 hours and 11 minutes, and - bang! - ring his bell exactly 10 hours and 11 minutes later. I was a thing to behold.

I recall those days with some fondness. It was a time when I never had a problem finding anything, because everything was in its place. The words, "I'm sorry I'm late" were as alien to me as Hottentot grammar.

It was precisely because others joked with me about being so "tightly wrapped" (as one friend put it) that I came to pride myself on these qualities.

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Although orderliness and punctuality seemed natural to me, I worked at reinforcing them, if only for the comments I drew from my perennially tardy and disorganized observers.

Alas, all of this was many years ago. Especially the orderliness.

My home gradually became a living thing in its own right. I was convinced that the creaking and shifting about I heard in the dead of night were the floors and walls moving papers and books and assorted odds and ends about to taunt me.

The result was that my early mornings became mad rushes to find the things I needed during the day. There were times when I simply swept papers wholesale into my briefcase, in the hope that, as the day progressed, I would manage to find what I needed when I needed it.

When I first became disorganized - sometime in my 30s - I suddenly found that I had to concoct strategies for getting things under control. I tried a datebook, but after writing down my tasks for the next day, I would forget to look at it.

So I turned to writing Post-it notes and sticking them on the door so that I would see them as I left the house. But during the night they'd come loose and flutter into their hiding places. By the time I found them, those things no longer needed doing, so I threw the notes away.

Like my orderliness, my punctuality also disappeared. My nickname should have been something like Excuse Me or Sorry I'm Late, because these became my mantras as I arrived at meetings that had already convened, or chased buses that had already left their stops, or arrived for dinner with friends just as the dishes were being cleared from the table.

On one occasion, I overcompensated by taking pains to arrive 15 minutes early for such a dinner, only to be told that the invitation was for the following evening. I dutifully excused myself and immediately wrote down the new date - and then lost the note.

How did I go from an organizational phenomenon to someone who keeps forgetting that the glasses he's looking for are on his head?

A big part of it, I think, was the energy it took to stay organized and on time. Some people are built for it, and the demands placed upon them only sharpen their senses. I realize, in hindsight, that I was never meant for deadlines or putting things in neat files. I was happiest when I was daydreaming or puttering. Over time, I simply gave in to these enjoyable qualities of my nature.

Another reason for my letting go of the reins, so to speak, was the arrival of my two sons, both adopted from Eastern Europe. With them in the house, I soon realized that scheduling and order meant almost nothing. How do you get to a parent-teacher meeting on time when your 7-year-old promised to be back from his bike ride "in five minutes" and isn't?

In my defense, I have, of late, made an effort to establish a modicum of order and control. How? By setting my watch - and every clock in the house - 30 minutes ahead. It's worked splendidly so far: I seem always to have time to spare for organizing things, and I've become reacquainted with what it's like to be on time.

Only my younger son, now 9, seems perplexed. "Why," he asks every so often, "am I always the first kid at school?"

If I ever manage to find his watch, I'll let him figure that one out for himself.

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