Topher Payne’s Domestically Disturbed

Playwright and writer Topher Payne

It was a week ago, and I was at the Home Depot garden center, attempting to navigate the aisles pushing one of those flatbed carts while balancing the phone under my ear. I’d called Mama to ask for her advice about my flower beds. Not to diminish anything I’ve accomplished up to this point, but she made it pretty plain that this was the proudest moment of her life.

“Oh, Barbara,” Mama cried out to her sister. “Topher’s buying plants!”

Aunt Barbara let out a little whoop of approval and instantly suggested azaleas.

“Calm down. I’m just doing a little bed by the front door…”

“Climbing jasmine!” yelled my mother. They’d developed landscaping Tourette’s.

The yard had been on my to-do list since late 2007, but it was that thing that always fell to the bottom of the priority list. I really did want to get around to it, but was inevitably the easiest thing to drop. It was the real-life equivalent of recording Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show on my DVR. I had every good intention of watching, but if I needed to make room in the queue for an episode of “Untucked,” O’Donnell got cut. Which is why I now feel personally responsible for her cancellation. Ro, I am so sorry.

Anyhoo, my husband and I recently had a very serious conversation about the general state of our home, namely how he works very hard to maintain it, and I work equally hard to destroy it, and I seem to be winning the battle despite his best efforts.

Confession: I am a very messy person. I tend to be a big idea kinda guy, but then I am easily distracted mid-project. So I leave everything out in case I want to return at some point. I swear to God, right now there is a hot glue gun on my desk that has been sitting there for almost a year. I could put it away. But then I might need it.

If I were still single, I’d be on “Hoarders” by now, watching the Got Junk team extract a skeleton from under a pile of American Theatre magazines and trying to remember when the hell I owned a cat. There are many things Preppy has brought to my life, but preventing me from that fate is among the most commendable.

We’ve had the conversation about my… habits… for about five years. But the recent serious conversation was more in the vein of “Jesus God, I love you but I am absolutely not going to live in your tornado of shit a moment longer and I will burn this house down myself with you in it before it gets this bad again,” so I’ve been addressing it a little more aggressively.

I’ve been adopting all these novel concepts: The dining room table is not where we put our underpants when we strip after work. Dishes, once used, must be cleaned in some fashion. If we vacuum more than once a month, it will eliminate the dog hair tumbleweeds rolling through the kitchen.

Beyond the general housekeeping, I wanted to take on a small, manageable project as evidence of my love and respect for the house, and by extension, my husband. And that’s how I ended up in the garden center, with a cartful of manure and questions for Mama about the difference between annuals and perennials.

“You’ll love it, son,” said Mama. “Once you start, you’ll just fall in love and want to do the whole yard.”

“That is precisely what we’re avoiding,” I told her. “The whole point of this is to see the project to completion.”

This turns out to be only partially true, as nurturing a living thing isn’t really a one-time exercise. Drive by on any given afternoon, and you’ll see me out front with my watering can, caring for my little bed of marigolds and snapdragons. I’ve become quite invested in their well-being.

Recovery programs usually suggest you learn to care for a plant, then an animal, then a person. Like so much else in my life, I’m doing it backwards, but I’m beginning to comprehend the philosophy: With a little daily maintenance, life has the potential to be quite beautiful.

Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at