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


Anonymous said...

It would appear incumbent on you to read books before you criticize them.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put, Cynthia!

If you'd like to read/hear some other critiques, you can read my blog entry on this; I've noted your excellent essay there.

And here's a link to the complete New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/21/garden/21mess.html?ex=1324357200&en=de87bee10be66d1f&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Dear Anonymous,

It appears that we've had an unfortunate failure to communicate. As I stated in my original post, I'm aware that it's risky business to comment on a book without reading it, but I also tried to make clear that my references to the books stemmed only from the underlying thesis of journalist Green's interesting but disturbing (to me) article. The fact that she used certain books to support her reportage and quoted from them, I thought allowed me just enough wiggle room to respond to the subject of her article. To do that, I made use of the quotes, too (there is some humor in my responses -- admittedly it's dark, "I've seen the other side and it isn't pretty" humor); my purpose was not to critique the books.

Fortunately, Ms. Green also quoted several other sources, including Dr. Pollak, who is mentioned in my post and given, I think, rather helpful advice to get help before his marriage collapses.

By the way, this is the danger of allowing someone to quote you and use your name. You are, perhaps, the wisest of us all, Anonymous!

Anyway, Ms. Green's article was called "Saying Yes to Mess" in the NY Times; in the LA Daily News it was retitled "Embrace the Clutter: Why Stuffed Closets, Messy Desks and Massive Piles Aren't All That Bad." It's illustrated with a great cartoon by Edward Koren, one of my favorite cartoonists, depicting a smiling couple seated at their dinner table, wineglasses raised in a toast. Surrounding them is a room in chaos. Many of my readers and I are intimately familiar with that room. Trust me, it does not make us want to lift our wineglasses in a cheerful toast. It may make us want to lift an entire bottle of wine to our lips to obliterate the feeling that we are completely overwhelmed. (I'm one of those rare people who is allergic to the sulfites in wine, which is probably all for the best.)

Ms. Green's article was about the opinions of "contrarian voices," as she put it, who espouse the position that clutter and messiness is okay. All we need to do is relax, let go of this allegedly unrealistic desire to get organized and everything will be rosy. For me, this is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. I strongly disagree with that point of view. And that was the purpose of my post. Not a book review, not an indictment against Ms. Green (although she did hurt my feelings a bit with that "humorless prig" business, but I forgive her). My post is simply a plea for understanding that living or working in a cluttered environment is not desirable, no matter how it's euphemistically dressed up as flexible, liberating or creative. It's really just a mess and most people are happier when they're not surrounded by a mess.

Cheers and thanks for taking the time to comment!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Dear Jeri,

Thanks! And thanks for the links.

Readers, Jeri's blog entry has a further link to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" program in which author Dave Freedman and a professional organizer discuss (or, more likely, debate) the merits of their differing points of view.

I'm looking forward to hearing this!

Cheers and thanks for taking the time to comment!

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous again,

Did you get around to reading the books? Did your thinking evolve on these questions after reading them? Or will you stick to your ideas, uninformed by these books? Just curious.



Cynthia Friedlob said...

(Dear Readers: Just to clarify -- the second comment on this post was made by professional organizer, Jeri Dansky. When my Blogspot software was upgraded, her name was inadvertently removed for some mysterious technological reason.)

Dear Anonymous,

I have not yet had the opportunity to read the books, though I look forward to doing so at some time in the future. I did listen to David Freedman's NPR interview (the link is on Jeri's blog) and I read his opinion piece in the January 29 LA Times:


In this article, Mr. Freedman refers to "tsk-tsking neat freaks" who make people feel guilty about their messiness. I have no interest in making anyone feel guilty about the way that they live. In my book, I make a point of stating that people fall on a continuum from the pathological hoarder to what I suppose might be called the pathologically neat. Most of us are in the middle somewhere. I try to help those people in the middle who are unhappy with their level of messiness by suggesting that much of the problem is caused simply by having too much stuff in their homes and offices. All my suggestions are based on my own experience. However, "too much" is a personal decision; I pass no judgments on anyone. So if you, or anyone else, are happy and content with your personal situation, Anonymous, I say bravo!

As for having my "thinking evolve," well, that's what being thoughtful is all about. I hope we all will allow our thinking to evolve as we go through life.