Saturday, January 27, 2007

Off the Grid

I confess that I have several fantasy lives ranging from NASA astronomer to globetrotting photojournalist, the former being quite a challenge for someone whose mind can be boggled by scientific complexities and the latter being particularly amusing for a person who doesn't like to travel. One fantasy life I've harbored since back in the day when I had a subscription to Mother Earth News: urban farmer. Again, this is rather laughable because while I have the "urban" thing down, it's questionable that I'd be able to farm anything more demanding than a potted philodendron.

But what could be a greater commitment to minimizing participation in our consumer culture than becoming self-sufficient? An article in the January 25 LA Times entitled "O, pioneers in Pasadena," details the efforts of another fan of Mother Earth News, Jules Dervaes. He and his family decided to get "off the grid" by turning their urban front and back yards into an agricultural mini-miracle that's adjacent to a very busy, major metropolitan freeway. As if that were not sufficient, the family also converts discarded vegetable oil from local restaurants into cheap biodiesel fuel for their truck and they have created a selection of useful contraptions such as a blender powered by pedaling a bicycle. You can get more information about this astonishing accomplishment by visiting their website -- they're still "on the grid" enough to understand the importance of an online presence. Then, if you're feeling extremely motivated, you can get tips for starting your own urban homestead by reading the "Novice's Guide" prepared by the article's writer, Joe Robinson. Of course, there are also other websites and books offering city dwellers information about learning to live off the land.

I applaud the incredibly hard work and noble intentions of these urban farmers, but it's unlikely that most of us would be willing to devote the time and energy necessary to follow their example. I won't even attempt to get a tomato plant to grow on our patio because of the wasps that enjoy hanging around the general area; urban farmers can't get traumatized by bugs, so that takes me right out of the running. It is a fantasy life, remember?

But what are a few ideas that the urban non-farmer can implement that would help us live a little more lightly on the land? A simple beginning would be to support those intrepid souls like Mr. Dervaes by buying their produce at local farmers' markets. We could consider adding solar panels when the old roof needs to be replaced, and meanwhile, adjust the thermostat a couple of degrees to use less energy. I may not be too eager to wash my clothes in a tub with a hand-cranked agitator, but if my washer breaks (Heaven forbid!), I'd look for an energy-efficient model to replace it.

But perhaps more importantly, we could take a cue from the Dervaes family by giving some thought to their lifestyle: what they own does not need to be new and fancy; they reuse and recycle items in novel ways but the results are functional -- at least they work just fine for them. It's unlikely that we'd find any of the family members hitting the local mall to shop 'til they drop, just for recreation. I doubt that they worry much about the latest decorating or fashion trends.

Of course, most of us can't get by with a wardrobe of overalls and work boots, and there's really nothing wrong with wanting a fresh coat of paint on the walls or new carpet when the old one wears out. But how often do we turn to shopping as therapy? How often do we feel that we "need" something new when what we really want is attention from our mates, or more respect on our jobs, or a little time to ourselves?

What if we decided to tend our houses with the same kind of focus and determination that these farmers use to care for the crops on their land? If we clear away what we no longer need and use, then resist the urge to fill up that space with new but equally unnecessary stuff, we could nurture an urban household garden that would flourish right inside our own homes.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, January 22, 2007

What Makes a House a Home?

My "decorating style," using the term as loosely as it can possibly be applied, is a combination of basic and functional furniture tossed in with a few bits of my grandmother's Victorian china; some handmade crafts created by my mother; a lot of books, some that belonged to my father; and a big, old, weighty, very rustic Mexican ranchero dining table. To describe it as "eclectic" might be a polite understatement. Our townhouse living room does double-duty as my workplace, so along with a couch and chair, there's a computer, an easel and (still too many) art supplies in it. Upstairs, my partner, The Writer, splits the large den in half, with one end devoted to his office and the other end providing a comfy spot for us to watch TV. Architectural Digest will not be coming anytime soon to photograph our interiors, but they work well for us. And I've had sit-down dinner parties for as many as eight where everyone hung out in the kitchen and around the dining table anyway, as people often do at social gatherings, so we find our home an enjoyable place to entertain.

If you've read my book, you know that in our on-going downsizing process I've already parted with a house-load of treasured, inherited antique furniture; crystal and dinnerware; and my dearly loved childhood piano. I finally had to realize that even though the pieces were beautiful and I certainly had sentimental attachment to them, they didn't serve us well in our day-to-day living. Also, they didn't feel like "me" anymore. I was moving on to another stage of my life in which function and a feeling of freedom, rather than style or sentiment, became my primary concerns. But there were some items that I kept because they still did feel like "me." When I see them, they make me happy and they make me feel at home. So I was intrigued when I received an e-mail from a reader telling me about her dilemma:

"I would feel uncomfortable in an austere, minimalist setting, and would quickly add some blankets, pillows, candles, books and other things to make it feel more homey. My problem is that when I've culled my stuff down to what I consider 'the essentials,' my husband complains that we can't have people in because the house is too messy. If I put more things away, I feel like I'm 'losing' parts of me - how will anyone know that this is my home if there are no signs of 'me' anywhere?"

What does it take to make your house your home? Unless you're happy living in a place that looks like the average hotel room, you will want things around that have meaning to you, perhaps because they remind you of your family history, a special event, your passion for your hobby, or maybe you just like the way they look. But how many things? Do you really need all of your golfing trophies displayed on the mantel? I don't know; maybe you do. Do you really need to be able to admire your collection of three hundred miniature porcelain poodles every day? That's certainly possible, though I would hope you'd have a lovely display case for them and not have them scattered on every surface. But how do you handle your partner/spouse/roommate's feeling that what you need is more than he or she can tolerate?

It's hard enough making these decisions on your own, but it's a very tricky task when sharing your living space with another person. If it's your space together, it should reflect that, but that doesn't mean that you each must give up your individual identities. I have several small shelves in the dining room displaying personal items I enjoy seeing; The Writer has matching shelves displaying his collection of things he enjoys. In his office area there are all kinds of items and photos that mark that territory as his; on my desk I have similar small objects that are easily identified as mine, and my paintings hang on many of our walls. There are also some items in our home that we think of as "ours." We're still in the process of paring down to the "essentials" and we both work at home, so, yes, things do get messy. But if other people are coming by, it doesn't take too long to whip the place into presentable shape. Whatever flaws remain are not important enough to prevent us from enjoying the company of friends and family and, fortunately, our visitors seem to enjoy being here, too.

So I wonder how a home that has been pared down to the essentials, as this reader states, could possibly be too "messy" to entertain other people. Either my dear reader is underestimating how many things are essential or her husband is only comfortable in the very simplest surroundings. And what about her husband? Does he have possessions that he displays in their home? Has he pared down to what's essential to him? Clearly there are too many unknown factors to be able to understand how this couple relates to each other or to their possessions, but based only on this limited information, either too much stuff, or the husband's perception of too much stuff, is causing a problem that they have not been able to resolve.

Unless your home is quite obviously overtaken by clutter (you know who you are!), if you are unable to navigate through it and are embarrassed to have other people see it in its current catastrophic state, the decision about what's essential is a very personal one. Unfortunately, this husband and wife appear to have dramatically opposing viewpoints on the subject, and it's resulted in them not being able to enjoy visits from family and friends. This is a situation where an objective third party can be very helpful. A trusted spiritual advisor, a counselor or perhaps a qualified professional organizer could facilitate a dialogue and work out a compromise that would allow each of them to feel that their needs are being mutually respected and that their individual identities are reflected in their home. Then they could get on with truly living in it.

If you share your home with someone else, or with your entire family, I sincerely hope that you don't allow stuff to get in the way of your relationships. Stuff is just stuff; these other people are an important part of your life. If you value them, please get help to find a way to handle any significant conflicts you have over the things that you own.

The most important thing that makes a house a home is the contentment of the people who live there.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Attacking the Attack on Clutter - Part Two

Professional organizer Jeri Dansky kindly provided a link on her site (see comments on my previous post) to the December 28th "NPR: Talk of the Nation" program featuring David Freedman, one of the authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, in conversation with pro organizer Kathy Waddill. I found it to be an interesting show and it further confirmed my belief that there is absolutely nothing perfect about a mess. It also confirmed my suspicion that it's helpful to explain what we mean by the term "organized."

On the broadcast, Ms. Waddill made an important point by stressing that organization is not about neatness so much as it is about function. Most of us who struggle to get organized are not suffering from some sort of neurotic need for rigid orderliness; we just want to be able to find what we want when we want it, then we want to have sufficient space to use whatever it is that we just found. If I want to bake a cake, I want to be able to get out the cake pan without having to empty my entire kitchen cupboard. Then I want to have enough room on the kitchen countertop to work there without having to relocate a week's worth of mail, a sweater, and an accumulation of expired coupons. Otherwise, I'm annoyed. To avoid being annoyed, that means that I must not allow a bunch of extra plastic containers to accumulate in my cabinet where they will just be in the way; I must have a more appropriate place to stash my mail; I must have a place to hang up my sweater; and, in my particular case, I must forget about saving coupons because I seem to be incapable of remembering to use them -- I applaud those who do remember, but because I don't, it's better for me to skip the mental torture of consistent failure on this one small task.

"Organized" is a word that has unfairly acquired a negative connotation. It often seems to be used to define to some mythical state of perfection that we'll never achieve anyway and it's usually applied snidely to people who seem to be compulsively neat. If we simply substitute the word "functional," or some variation of it, we can better indicate what most of us are trying to achieve. "Organized" sounds final; "functional" sounds fluid, flexible, as if changes still can be made as a process unfolds. Having a functional home and office is a realistic goal, because life is not static. A functional home and office are not always ready for a photo-op, but they can be made ready fairly quickly because they are set up to function efficiently.

"Messy," on the other hand, is a condition that interferes with good functioning. The fact that a few rare souls are able to function amidst a mess ("The mortgage papers? Why they're three inches down in that big pile behind the potted palm, just to the left of the orange crate full of Junior's old toys.") does not mean it's a desirable condition. It's simply a situation that lacks a functional system.

Every household has systems of some kind for just about everything that goes on, but for some, they're disorderly, inefficient systems that result in a dysfunctional household. Here's a small example: if your "system" is to toss the mail wherever there's an empty surface to "deal with it later," chances are you're going to lose track of some of your mail. Probably there will be some bills in there that won't get paid. This could get your phone turned off, affect your credit rating, or just be embarrassing the next time you go to your doctor's office and are told in front of a full waiting room that your payment is overdue. It's a system that doesn't work, so you need a new system. If you decide that you want one and can't come up on your own with something that works, chances are you'll consult a book (or many, many books) about organizing, or perhaps hire a professional organizer for help. Systems must function for individual personalities within the context of their living and working situations, so you'll have to figure out what system will function best for you.

But what's the first thing any useful organizing book or any pro organizer worth her color-coded manila folders would tell you? Get rid of any unnecessary stuff before you set up your system so that all you have left to organize is what you truly need. Unfortunately, this particular crucial issue didn't get discussed on the NPR show, but it is the underlying problem that creates most messes: we simply have too much stuff.

So, once again, I suggest that you not get caught up worrying about "organizing" and, instead, focus on eliminating everything that you don't need to function. In your home, that doesn't mean that you must throw out every single one of your decorative items or your favorite collections; in your office, it doesn't mean randomly bagging every pile of papers and trashing them (no matter how tempting that may seem!). It means that to begin your process of setting up functional living and working systems, you must determine, honestly, what you need. You'll find that you need less than you have!

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Attacking the Attack on Clutter

A frustrating article by Penelope Green in the New York Times, reprinted in the Los Angeles Daily News with the slightly altered title, "Embrace the Clutter," has caused me distress. It's not because she informed me that January is "Get Organized Month," the result of a successful public relations effort on the part of the National Association of Professional Organizers. They have my wholehearted support; I'm impressed that they're organized enough to get a month of acclaim devoted to their profession.

No, it's because she is reporting on an "anti-anti-clutter movement" which says that messy is fine, messy is creative, messy is life lived with gusto. In fact, David H. Freedman and Eric Abrahamson have written a book about that very point of view called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Rabbi Irwin Kula is the author of another tome entitled, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, that Ms. Green includes in her article, for reasons that elude me, as I will explain later.

I have not read the Freedman/Abrahamson argument in favor of clutter nor the rabbi's learned musings on the general messiness of life and I am loathe to criticize anything I have not read. One risks jumping to incorrect conclusions based on the interpretation of others. However, risky though it may be, I will share some thoughts I derived from reading Ms. Green's article. Needless to say, I'm a bit vexed.

Frustration Number One: I am unclear why Rabbi Kula's book has been tossed into the same category as the Freedman/Abrahamson book. Not having read it, and having perused only the editorial and reader reviews on Amazon.com, I'm working admittedly from second-hand information. However, I have the very strong impression that the rabbi has written a spiritually uplifting book to help us through the messiness of everyday living, not the messiness in our homes. It appears that he is encouraging us to accept change as inevitable, to get comfortable with the reality that we and our lives can never be perfect. This is a very tenable position. In fact, I've often discussed that fact that the quest for perfection undermines many of us who face difficulties handling clutter.

Unfortunately, Ms. Green quotes Rabbi Kula from her interview as follows: "Order can be profane and life diminishing . . . if you've never had a messy kitchen, you've probably never had a home-cooked meal." From a Stuff Sufferer's point of view, however, we know that if you start out with a truly messy kitchen, you can't make a decent home-cooked meal! And chaos in the form of clutter can be pretty darn profane and life diminishing, too, if it prevents you from functioning and mentally paralyzes you the minute you open your front door. For most of us who suffer from this standard "profane" messiness resulting from too many unnecessary possessions scattered around in disarray, well, we'd be thrilled to have a little control over our surroundings so that we could get on with more important things in our lives.

But, the rabbi's quote aside, it seems clear that his book is not about advocating leaving the Hanukkah menorah on display until July or expecting the members of his congregation to step casually over random piles of miscellaneous stuff should they come to call at his home. Perhaps his book was included in Ms. Green's article solely because of its title. If anyone who has read it can enlighten me further, I welcome your comments.

Frustration Number Two: On the other hand, we have the alleged . . . Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Again, based on information provided by Ms. Green's article; the editorial reviews on Amazon.com; and the book's helpfully specific subtitle: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, this book makes an effort to deliver the "clutter is good" message. It is listed as a business book that wants businesses and organizations to be more open, less rigid, and less organized, and it has some documentation to back up this position.

Of course, there is a big difference between being rigid and being organized, and an equally large difference between being open to possibilities and being so unstructured that opportunities escape amidst chaos. Also, although this is a book dedicated to advising businesses and organizations, those entities are composed of individuals. I expect the book's approach will hold great appeal for some people who have become so unorganized that they've lost control of their lives and encourage them to decide that, hey, this mess is okay after all because I'm just a creative, spontaneous kind of person. Again, I welcome comments from readers who can shed further light.

But back to Ms. Green's article. I was particularly bemused by the concept that messiness is desirable because it allows for adaptability to whatever situation presents itself. Authors Freedman and Abrahamson use as an example Arnold Schwarzenegger's refusal to have a daily schedule; I hope they also mention Arnold's huge staff of subordinates and advisers who try to cope with that situation and steer him in ways that will make him effective in spite of his constantly open calendar. I wonder if they mention if this causes those people any stress.

I'd also enjoy hearing the authors explain their odd thinking on another point, as reported by Ms. Green: "The most valuable dividend of living with mess may be time." Have they never had to search for their car keys buried somewhere on a clutter-laden countertop? Have they never panicked over "misplacing" that crucial stack of paperwork that means the difference between keeping and losing a client? Have they never forgotten to turn on the dishwasher, with another full load of dishes already waiting in the sink? Have they never pulled a wrinkled suit out of their crammed closets and wished it had been ironed?

Oh, wait a minute. These authors are men! Alas, no matter how far "gender awareness" and the sharing of family responsibilities may have progressed over the last several decades, it is still the woman's job to take care of running the household in the vast majority of homes across the land. So, let's consider this quote from Ms. Green's article: "(author David) Freedman, who has three children and a hard-working spouse, Laurie Tobey-Freedman, a pre-school special-needs coordinator, is studying Mandarin in his precious spare time." Hmmm. Mr. Freedman, I have to wonder how that hard-working spouse of yours feels about your conclusion that messiness leads to more free time. Of course, it's possible she's of the same mind as you; perhaps two clutter-tolerant people found love based, at least in some small part, on their shared belief in the value of being untidy. But, just out of curiosity, who does the laundry at your house? Who gets the lunches together for the kids to take to school? Who does the chauffeuring of those kids? If I asked you to lay your hands on last month's bank statement, could you do it? And, by the way, I'd also like to know if Ms. Tobey-Freedman is studying Cantonese in her precious spare hours?

Ms. Green also quotes from a rather astonishing interview conducted with Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at a mental health center in New Hampshire, "whose work involves helping people tolerate the inherent disorder in their lives." He states that he lives in "a world of total clutter . . . My wife has threatened divorce over all the piles . . . If we had kids, the health department would have to be alerted. But what can I do?" Oh, the irony! Get some therapy, Dr. Pollack. Fast. There's a dramatic difference between teaching people useful coping skills to handle the inevitable twists of fate they must endure in their lives and ending up with a ruined marriage because you can't get it together to buy a filing cabinet.

Let's be clear: clutter is not simply the remnants of daily life. Of course our rooms will rarely look ready for a magazine photograph; we live in our homes. But a joyful mess is one that is created in the process of living, not the process of accumulating, or stacking, or storing, or stumbling over. There's no reason to defend messiness when it's just clutter that's out of control. It gets in our way, literally and psychologically, creating a huge obstacle that prevents us from living fully. It's very simply the result of too much stuff. No one should have any illusions that perfection is achievable, or even desirable. But no one should have to settle for an environment that is overcrowded, unsatisfying and dysfunctional when getting rid of clutter would solve the problem.

So, please, if there are any sadly misguided advocates of messiness who might be reading this, don't try to convince those of us who suffer from a cluttered environment that it's okay to live that way. We're just struggling to get or keep a little order in our lives and are not "humorless and inflexible prigs (with) way too much time on (our) hands" (thank you for the pithy description, Ms. Green). We're people who are trying very hard to reclaim our time, our flexibility, and our sanity. And, believe me, we absolutely must have a sense of humor to get through this process.

But, right now, having learned that there is any effort at all to advocate messiness, I must confess that I am not laughing.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob