Males of many species mark their territorial boundaries. The other day my wife accused me of marking mine.
I will confess to feeling shocked by her comments at first. The shoes I leave under the coffee table in the living room, a pile of mail stacked on the dining table, my pants draped over the cedar chest in the bedroom…these and other examples came up in our conversation. The more I listened the more I realized she was entirely right; I do mark my territory.
I’ve always thought of my shoes, mail, pants and the like as positive evidence of life, the undeniable proof that I inhabit our house. I like that our house feels “lived in” and not sterile. I’m not a slob, by any means; I like some order in my life. Accordingly, I never lose my keys, my iPhone or my wallet. A man of some routine, I tend to put things in the same places over and over again, and generally know where I can find them. From my mate’s point of view, however, my things are all over the house.
Living in a common space requires accommodation, acceptance, authority or a combination of all three. Of the three, authority is the most challenging; territorial behavior is an expression of authority. In nature, boundaries are soft and flexible but in a house of individual rooms and set dimensions boundaries tend towards fixed. Certain things belong in a dining room, and certain things do not. Moreover, a natural hierarchy exists, conventions about what belongs where. Shoes, for example, never belong on a dining room table and coats are not customarily piled on the floor.
Thus objects from one room often don’t “feel” right in another. Take baseball caps for example. I have many baseball caps of different colors, and choosing my cap for the day is related to the color of my clothes. Perhaps I have a mild case of OCD, but I feel odd in a cap that clashes with my shirt. But I digress. Since I go in and out several times each day, I’ve taken to placing my cap upside down on the kitchen counter, with my keys and my sunglasses put inside. When I go out, everything I need is in one place. However, as I change my cap preference day to day, caps tend to accumulate on the counter, and I now see that in this way I am marking my territory.
My wife’s comment at this point would be that I should put my caps away, and she would be right. And I could counter that I might want to change my cap, or wear yesterday’s cap tomorrow, but this would be a thin excuse for the overt marking of my territory. The fact is that the sight of my colored caps reassures and relaxes me. Please don’t ask me why.
If inclined, I could write Dear Abby: “My wife says my stuff all over makes her feel crowded out of our shared space. She says I’m marking territory, but I say I’m just living. What do you recommend?” Signed, Larry. “Dear Larry,” she would respond, “Your wife is right, you need to pick up your crap and put it where it belongs. What are you, a person or some kind of rodent?” Harsh but true. So I’m working on it.