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Neat freaks, stand up and take a bow
How about some kudos to those who keep things in order -- all the time

Blast San Francisco Bureau

I'm having a panic attack.

The kids are fighting, my sister wants me to fax her family documents pronto, it's PMS week, the laundry's piling up.

And I'm out of Lysol.

I can't possibly wash my whites without my disinfectant. Sure, there's plenty of detergent and fabric softener on the shelf. But there are black-soled socks, puke-stained bibs and underwear in that pile. Every morsel of dirt and bacteria must be eradicated, exterminated in 110-degree water. Tide alone cannot sanitize; without Lysol, those clothes will never come out smelling like hospital equipment. Clean. Purified.

So I bundle up my daughters and head out to the store. Never mind that I look like a zombie, or that I'm still wearing my night shirt underneath my coat.

I got my Lysol, and I can wash.

Couldn't it wait, my girlfriend chided, when I told her of my winter-morning urgency? For her, housework should take a back seat to child-rearing. But the laundry is a call to godliness. It's taking up arms against germs. The cleanliness of my family is at stake.

Maybe I've taken it too far. But I cannot bear the sight of a full hamper, or a sink full of dishes. I want magazines recycled, or donated to a Laundromat. I cannot stand unwatched videos lying around outside of their cases. I want my store coupons unexpired and stashed in the same place, dammit.

Many articles have been written about those who put off tidying up. Busy schedule, that's the excuse. Businesses have specialized in helping these folks cope with their busy-ness, by getting their closets, garages, car trunks and desk spaces together. Jenny Jones awarded a bunch of proud slobs with makeovers in front of a cheering audience. There's a Web site dedicated to slobs.

But little has been said about those whose closets and garages and car trunks and desk spaces are together. Those who care very deeply about the positioning of their staplers. Those who routinely spray Formula 409 on their phones and spritz their PC screens with Windex before they can log on. Those who lather up their laundry with Lysol. Those whose order of the day is order.

Well, I am one of those. My name is Belinda, and I am a neat freak.

My house may not be enhanced by Martha Stewart, but it is spic-and-span, despite the two kids who run it. Help yourself to the kitchen; the spices are alphabetized. Recipes clipped from magazines are categorized and protected in photo albums. The dishes and silverware are used on a rotating basis, i.e., what just got washed and dried goes at the bottom of the stack, so every plate and fork gets its turn.

Orderliness is not always a welcome trait. It certainly has not been for me.

I always resented seeing my father repeatedly demonstrate the "correct way" of ironing button-down shirts or the "accurate way" of cleaning glass surfaces (in clockwise rotation). And the house rule of having your monk shoes shined by Sunday, or you don't go to school Monday. (My shoes are always buffed.)

Years later, I got into an argument over clothes hangers facing one direction and one direction only. I gasped. I had become my father.

My penchant for tidiness has not turned me into a Neatness Nazi, but it sure has made for relationship turning points. A former roommate started eating cereal in his bedroom because he said I was following him everywhere with a hand vacuum. A once-significant other claimed I ruined "the mood" when I had to tighten a leaking faucet at an inappropriate time. (The kerplunks were torturing me!)

Neat control does not have to be a chore. You can be busy, yet find a few minutes to put things in place. My 20-year-old nephew Alvin has made tidying up part of his system since early childhood. His CDs are arranged according to type of music and region: Hip-hop music at the top right, freestyle music at bottom left, and reggae "between West Coast artist hip-hop and R&B." (East Coast artists enjoy the right column of his free-standing rack.) "It's natural in my head," Alvin explains. "I don't stress over it. I could tell where things are, and it's easy for me to see if something's missing."

Being a neat freak is not necessarily having a behavioral dysfunction, says Dr. James Barrick, president of the Santa Clara County Psychological Association and a practicing psychologist in Los Gatos, Calif. The key, Barrick says, is the intensity of orderliness. "We're all control freaks. Everybody wants things his or her own way." It becomes more than an idiosyncrasy, he points out, when the neat-picker is impelled to immediately realign or fix things that have been moved. Or impulsively realigning other people's effects.

My friend Susan re-rubber bands files that I've sorted and rubber-banded for her, and I am not offended. She says she feels safer with the added elastic, knowing loose pages have a lesser chance of falling off. Alvin says he gets "much satisfaction" folding his friendsí jackets and aligning their backpacks on one side of the wall when they invade his home and get comfortable. As I write this column from someone else's desk, I have made some elbow room (hence, thinking room) by stacking scattered books, only to later find out they were strategically spread by the owner according to his level of interest.

Barrick says there's much debate on whether neat freakiness is hereditary, or the effect of one's environment. "But so what?" he says. If it's hereditary, "all you can do is create an environment to support (the person)." And if the problem is environmental? "Then create an environment to maximize that person's potential," Barrick adds. The explanations sound the same to me.

My third-grader sorts her crayons monochromatically. She recently banned me from touching her bookshelf because those Bailey School Kids series are shelved "in the order I read it, MOM!" I am so proud of her.

That once-significant other has since maintained a drawer to store bills, medical records, perhaps information about and against me. (I am flattering myself.) See, I have an influence.

My toddler already screams "Mess! Mess!" every time she sees one. Just 2, she's already training to line up her Mega Bloks according to size and color.

When that moment arrives, my panic attacks will end.