December 20, 2019 § 44 Comments
I’M NERVOUS. Sorry- didn’t mean to yell- but I’m nervous. I’m also terribly excited- because… I have a new project. For some time now I’ve felt that the “Year of No” books really ought to be a series of three. Of course Year of No Sugar was my first book/family torture experiment and Year of No Clutter was the second. I had the idea for this third book ever since YONS was published in 2014, and have been chomping at the bit to do it ever since, but sometimes life gets in the way- you know how it is. So you’ll forgive me for any over-enthusiasm- I promise to stop pacing a hole in the carpet any minute now.
Why three? Well for one thing, I think three is just a really nice, satisfying number for a series of something, (two being too few and four being, you know, maybe a little show-offy.) Also, we did our Year of No Sugar adventure in 2011 when my kids were quite young, just 6 and 11, and the Year of No Clutter escapade took place in 2016 when they were 11 and 16. This third and final venture will involve them at ages 15 and 20- effectively spanning a nice, neat decade from beginning to end in the life of our family. You may recall that I have an ever so slight obsessive bent to my personality, so I do like things nice and neat.
And finally, thematically it will also make a lot of sense. I mean, hopefully to people other than just myself. But that explanation will have to wait. On New Year’s Day I’ll announce just what our family will be doing without for the entirely of 2020.
What do you think it will be? A Year of No People Magazine? A Year of No Taxidermy? A Year of No Cheese? Make a guess in the comments and if you get it right I’ll send you something really, really nice that is definitely probably not a Christmas re-gift from my Aunt Madeline.
July 8, 2019 § 8 Comments
Don’t call me Marie Kondo. I’ll get all bent out of shape about it.
You see, in a world increasingly filled with downsizers, tiny houses and minimalists, I am a maximalist. I keep stuff. I wrote a whole book about keeping stuff. It was called Year of No Clutter because after several decades of keeping everything in sight, I had finally run out of room, and it took a whole year to figure out how to undo what I had done.
I had read every book ever written on decluttering. The result was that my pile of decluttering books contributed to the clutter. But all that was before Marie Kondo took the organizing world by storm, with her ideas about how our objects ought to “spark joy.”
It’s one of those ideas that is so brilliantly simple that it changes the whole game. Why mess with lists of organizational mumbo jumbo when “spark joy” was all you really needed? And yet… despite the genius of her pithy message, and the appeal of her gentle-but-firm approach, I never was able to fully get on board with Kondo-ism, and I never knew why. Not that I haven’t tried. I’ve read the book. I’ve watched the Netflix series. If Subway made a Kon-Mari sandwich I’d have eaten it.
Yes, it bothered me that the Kon-Mari emphasis was on throwing things away rather than finding them new homes. (Next up: The Life Changing Magic of Topping off the Landfill!)
Yes, I worried that people in the throes of full-blown-Kondo hysteria would suffer declutterers-remorse when they came to their senses and realized they wanted back their old comic book collection/wedding dress/spleen.
Yes, it bothered me that Marie Kondo never discusses finer philosophical points of decluttering such as: What is the difference between clutter and a mess? (During my Year of No Clutter I came to the realization that this distinction is key: a mess is something anyone can clean up, because everything has a place where it is supposed to be. As in: “The kitchen is a mess.” Clutter, on the other hand, is the stuff that doesn’t have a place it belongs yet. Clutter is the result of unmade decisions; no one can undo it but you. As in: “What’s happening with this abandoned craft project?/ broken appliance?/ dead parrot?”)
But none of that was it. I never knew exactly what it was, until one day I posted a picture of a rag rug that I had made out of several boxes of old, sentimental clothing. I tagged the post “Definitely #notmariekondo”!
The reader who responded was a certified KonMari consultant.
“But it IS Marie Kondo!” she wrote. “It’s about keeping and valuing the things that make you happy! It’s beautiful!!”
The reader’s comment gave me pause. Was she right? Was I following Kondo principles without even realizing it? By weaving my old clothes and other fabrics into a rug I had found a new way to take joy in them… right?
Then it hit me. Suddenly I knew the problem with Marie Kondo and KonMari and the whole philosophy of keeping only the things that “spark joy” and it is this: our relationship with objects changes over time.
Because we never know what tomorrow will bring, or how we will feel in it, we never know exactly what to save- what will spark joy in that strange, new place called the future. My admittedly flawed solution to this conundrum in the past had always been to save it ALL. I’d fill up unused closets and corners, create time capsules for the attic— care packages to my future self— and desperately hope to have some ability to sort it all out meaningfully someday in the future. Who would I be when I grew up? What would turn out to have been important? Like Egyptian mummies who have all their belongings packed neatly up around them for whatever the afterlife holds in store, I had to prepare for every possible future self.
Of course, no closet or attic space is infinite, and no matter how good you are at spatial relations this strategy only works for so long. To a certain extent I’ve now become the person I would be when I grew up, and I’m relieved to be able to answer some of those questions at last. Opening up those time capsules from another era often presents either a clear “I’m so glad I saved this!” or a wonderfully freeing “oh, I don’t need that!” And if it doesn’t, I know what to do: I pack it right back up and return it to the attic. It just hasn’t been enough time yet.
In this decidedly un-Kondo-esque manner, I had held on to a whole host of things that any Kon-Mari consultant worth their salt would surely have advised me to pitch. College-era tie-dyes, a never-worn kilt, torn flannel nightgowns, my girls’ outgrown childhood dresses, a skirt I wore the year I met my husband… they were all packed up in boxes in the attic, patiently waiting for me to figure out a new way for them to be in my life. And then I realized I could make them into something new. When woven together they became what I called my Autobiography Rug. It was one of the greatest successes of the whole Year of No Clutter project and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t walk into the room where it now lies and smile, out of the corner of my eye identifying one fabric or another from the series of happy memories it represents, one after another, woven together. It is soft, squishy and pleasing under the feet and riotously colorful. It brings me great… joy.
Remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit? Some things don’t reveal their potential right away. They need time to have their fur worn off and their tail to come unsewn to become real. These things can take time, and that is the thing the Kon-Mari method doesn’t account for. Think of all the museums that are filled with objects that once upon a time someone probably should have thrown away. The Kon-Mari method of objects sparking joy is one barometer, a tool, and a darned good one at that, but I think we do ourselves— and our future selves— a disservice if it is the only one we use. Sometimes intuition, sentimentality, and even luck have crucial roles to play in what gets saved, and that’s as it should be.
We all keep things for reasons perhaps no one else could possibly understand— and thank goodness for that. Sometimes humans are far too sensible for our own good, and many of our objects could benefit from some buffer time, a vacation if you will, to serve as protection from our own good intentions.
A good sturdy attic box might be just the thing.
December 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
If you’re a sugar-avoider at this time of year, it’s hard not to feel like the Grinch. If you’re a clutter-avoider, you may well feel like you’re channeling Scrooge. So if you’re like me you’re a… a Scrinch. Basically, this time of year represents a nexus of everything I’ve ever written about. Too much sugar? Too much clutter? It’s all here. No wonder celebrants suffer from “holiday hangovers” and vow a slew of New Year’s resolutions. The problem with too much is that it never feels like enough until… it feels bad.
My goal at Christmastime is to have fun without ever arriving at the hangover part. An important part of this is practicing what I preach and avoiding excess sugar AND excess stuff in my gift-giving.
The holidays are tricky in this regard and Christmas is super tricky. This year I got a request to write about Christmas stockings in particular, which might be the trickiest of all. In a holiday that is chock-full of deeply weird traditions- trees in the house, shrubbery on the ceiling- the tradition of hanging our socks up for Santa to fill with treats is so especially strange that I am particularly fond of it.
But there are several key considerations with stocking stuffers. Firstly, no matter how big your stocking may be, there’s always a clear size limit. (I’m a stickler on this: in order to be a “stocking stuffer,” it must actually be physically stuffable in the stocking. Sorry, wall calendars.) Also, stocking contents are usually in addition to whatever “real” gifts are waiting under the tree, so probably there is a real budgetary limit as well. Santa has his work cut out for him, right? We need cheap, we need special and fun, we need small. And if you’re like me, and a Scrinch, then pile on top of those considerations the fact that you’re not wanting to overdose everyone on candy and chocolates either, OR wreck your home or the environment with crappo, plastic, break-in-five-minutes toys and hilarious, but-they-end-up-in-the-landfill joke gifts. (Seriously, no one really wants that taco-flavored coffee.)
If you know me, you probably have already guessed that I have given an inordinate amount of thought to The Stocking Problem. Before we go any further let me point out that yes, if you are avoiding sugar (which is cheap) and avoiding plastic crap (which is also cheap), it is going to be very, very easy to spend more money in the process of trying to avoid those things. So I recommend trying to work the problem backwards: decide how much money you want to spend on a person and then set aside some portion of that to spend on their stocking. No matter how much you set aside, of course, it won’t be enough, but that’s the nature of Christmas, so we’re used to it.
In the stocking stuffer category I’ve found most solutions to avoiding both sugar and clutter fall into two main groups. They are: No Sugar But Still Special Food, and Nice Versions of Small Things They Really Do Need/Will Use. Below are a few ideas I’ve used over the years… website links are beneath each idea. BTW no one is paying me to say any of this because I’m simply not that big a deal.
- No Sugar But Still Special Food:
Dried Cherries: Shhhhh! Don’t tell but I am totally doing this this year. I mean, Santa is. I hear. Chukar Cherries offers dried Rainer, Tart and Bing Cherries without added sugar in 6 oz bags for
about $10 each, or in tiny 1.85 oz. snack bags coupled with pistachios, cashews and almonds, 12 pack for $39, so $3 each. Other dried fruits or freeze dried fruits can be great too, just be sure to check that they don’t contain added sugar, artificial sugar or sugar alcohols (if advertised “sugar free” be on the look-out for sucralose, erythritol, mannitol, isomalt. I’d avoid these things as well.)
Tea in a Tin: Not so much a kid gift, but adults hang stockings in our house too. Try: Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice Tea, which, due to its combination of spices, tastes as if it is sweetened… but it isn’t. Seriously, I wouldn’t kid you about this. $8. Also consider hot sauces, little jars of special olives stuffed with garlic, fancy French mustards, olive oil so prized it comes with an eyedropper… anything you can’t buy at the supermarket automatically counts as “special.”
Popcorn: There’s just something fun about the idea of food that explodes. Unflavored, unpopped popcorn is your best bet in the no added sugar department, so ignore the millions of “gourmet” flavored varieties that include everything from maple bacon to booze… instead how about corn still-on-the-cob? All you need is a brown paper bag and you can pop it right off the cob in your microwave. It really is kind of fun and you’re avoiding PFOAs! (The very nasty chemicals coating microwave popcorn bags.) At $5 for a two-cob bag you are paying a premium per cob for the novelty of it of course, but then again it’s the cheapest thing on this list so chalk it up to the Elves’ Union or something. Or, if you have more stockings to fill, they also have a package of ten cobs for $17, giving you a much better deal per cob.
- Nice Versions of Small Things They Really Do Need/Will Use
Personalized Pencils: School supplies that are fun but usable can be great. Scented or shaped erasers, a stapler that looks like a man-eating shark- you get the idea. I love personalization as a way to make something mundane into something special- and kids LOVE having their name printed on things. You can get 24 in a variety of colors or designs for around $10.
Big Fluffy Slipper Socks: Last year I found some super-fluffy, plush slipper socks for my two daughter’s stockings. At $20 a pair, they were on the expensive side, however the upside was that they took up a lot of room in the stocking. YES! This year I found this site (below) and I love both the slippers and the socks which are priced between $7 and $12. However- be careful of buying Santa-themed items- how much use will these really get after X-mas day? Instead I’d go with cuddly polar bears and penguins which are good all winter long.
Fun Soaps: Soap is so great. It can be made in so many shapes and scents, and everyone needs it (unlike, say, scented candles or potpourri, which really aren’t for everyone.) Best of all, it’ll eventually get enjoyed and used up all at the same time. The Vermont Country Store has wonderfully cute animal-shaped soaps on a rope, for about $15, as well as soaps shaped like the gang from Peanuts. Please tell Santa I want the Snoopy.
So let me know: what do you think?
What other No Sugar/ No Clutter stocking stuffers have you found?
May 7, 2018 § 3 Comments
Do you or a loved one suffer from OCS? (Overstuffed Coffee-table Syndrome)? I know I do. Research suggests that 107% of depression is directly attributable to overstuffed coffee-tables. Clearly, it’s a silent epidemic.
But there are cures in development. To that end, I wanted to share my adventure of the other day, when I didn’t just clean off the coffee table, I freaking deconstructed it. I was like a woman possessed. I’m actually kind of lucky to even have a coffee table left at this point, given the fervor with which I went after this thing.
It all began in the morning when I realized that the table had disappeared under a pile of random stuff several weeks ago, and somehow hadn’t managed to get any better despite the fact that I’d been persistently ignoring it. We had just returned from vacation, which made the noticing all the more acute: what I had managed to not-see in busy pre-vacation weeks now seemed to be glaring like a neon sign flashing helpful questions at me:
This is okay with you?
I mean, I was just wondering if you like living like this, I mean is it a conscious style choice on your part?
Is it like shabby chic, but you know, without the chic?
So I made the decision that I was going to clean it up. And not just the old musical-chairs-trick where you put the difficult things in another room and shut the door so you’re just not looking at it anymore, but really, actually clean it up. It might take all morning— in fact, knowing me it might even take all month— but I was determined: I would do nothing else until it was a completely clean surface, damn it.
Of course, projects like this are always easy… at first. I start by picking off the low hanging fruit. Anything that belonged to an actual person in possession of a bed in our home got their belongings transferred to that location. Greta’s craft project, Greta’s knitting, Ilsa’s school supplies, all quickly departed the scene. The table went from looking like this (left), to like this (right):
Next, I rolled up and put away all the cloth napkins and dishtowels that had been sitting half done for never mind how long.
Everything was going great! In no time at all I had gone from Ugh. to Much Better, but my momentum was about to hit a wall. The reason why had to do with a realization I had come to during my Year of No Clutter which was this: there is a big difference between clutter and a mess. A mess is composed of things we know what to do with, but we just haven’t gotten around to doing yet. Clutter is composed of things we don’t quite know what to do with, or for some reason can’t quite get to happen yet. Comparatively speaking, cleaning up mess is easy (if annoying). Clearing clutter, on the other hand is
damn near impossible hard.
Keeping this distinction in mind, its easy to see why I got half the table clear so quickly, and why on any given day I might get this far and then go no further (only for the table to fill right back up over the rest of the afternoon and evening, am I right, people?)
So I took an inventory of the objects that remained, and the unanswered questions that made them clutter:
- Box and info booklet from new camera Steve bought… are we keeping these? Where will they live?
- Stack of CD-less jewel cases (some broken) and case-less CDs… what does one do with stuff like this? Is it just landfill material?
- Two non-functioning meat thermometers… one broken and one needs a new battery. No one knows which is which.
- Ilsa’s broken earring (in the tiny glass bowl)… Fixable, or garbage? No one knows.
So, like most clutter, what these items needed was a little extra time and persistence. I tackled them one at a time.
- When Steve came home for lunch I explained that I was writing a “blog about the coffee table” and reminded him that the new camera box had been sitting there for never mind how long. A few minutes later the information booklet was on the bookshelf and the box was in the recycling. I’m not above using internet blackmail to get things done here, people.
2. I was reminded that empty jewel cases are, in fact, reusable, so I recycled the liner notes and posted the cases as “free” on a local online marketplace. Within a few minutes I had a taker! Someone wanted my 12 empty, scratched CD cases! Hooray, no landfill! But what about the broken ones? It turns out that broken cases are recyclable, but not in curbside recycling. Instead I’d have to take them to a Best Buy, which for us is about a 45 minute drive away. All the broken plastic went into a paper bag marked “next time anyone is in Saratoga drop these at Best Buy” and put it by the door. The CDs themselves? Sadly they were garbage and garbage only- so in the bin they went.
3. After figuring out how to open the meat thermometer battery thingies (that’s a technical term) I ran out and purchased new batteries. Within minutes I had fixed one thermometer and placed the broken one in our pile of electronics recycling in the basement.
4. At last it all came down to this: one tiny little broken faux-pearl earring. Literally, this earring had been migrating around our house for at least the last year in its little glass bowl, in search of someone to make a decision about it. Every single time I looked at it I had the exact same series of thoughts:
- I should throw that thing out. It’s not like it’s worth anything.
- But Ilsa loves those earrings.
- I should try to fix it.
- I don’t think I can fix it, though.
- Oh look! It’s time to… pick the girls up/make dinner/teach myself harmonica
This time, however, I did not head out in search of a harmonica. This time I got out the super glue and right there and then glued that little earring sucker right back together. But not before I managed to spear myself with the sharp little Krazy Glue pin head.
No one said clearing clutter was without peril.
Now. Can I just TELL you how proud I am of that beautiful, clean coffee table surface? Not to mention how delighted Ilsa was to at last have her beloved earring back, and the fact that I no longer have to worry about giving my family horrible, multisyllabic diseases via undercooked meat. It’s really quite unreasonable, how happy that beautiful, open surface in the middle of my house makes me.
Now that I have explained how hard-won such small victories can be, perhaps those who do not suffer from OCS can glimpse an empty coffee-table from a brand-new vantage point: that of a time-honored battlefield in the war on mess and clutter.
The struggle is real.
April 25, 2018 § 1 Comment
True confessions time: I’ve actually been kind of afraid to check the results of the What To Do With Garfield?? poll. I mean, what if the winning answer was “Chuck It!”? Was I really gonna be able to put him in the trash? After all, this is me we’re talking about, who is utterly horrified by the concept of landfills. Who tries in vain to figure out how to repurpose hole-y sweat socks and who devotes actual brain space to whether or not toothpaste tube caps are recyclable. Besides, no matter how lame the project, I’m pretty sure I have never, ever thrown out something I’ve made… and I’ve certainly never thrown out anything I made that had a face.
Fortunately, weighing in at 27% of the vote, “Chuck It!” was juuuuust edged out by “donate to a school or library or….?” which garnered a very respectable 30%. So here’s what I am going to do: I will finish the pillow and donate it to our local library, where I might go and pay Garfield a visit whenever the mood strikes which will be, of course, exactly never. But it’s the knowing that I could that definitely- if inexplicably- helps.
The key element here is that I really do have to actually finish the pillow in order to make this into an object our library, or anyone for that matter, might actually want, and- surprise!- I don’t know how to do that. Which come to think of it is pretty much how Garfield and I got into this mess to begin with. Back to square one?
No! Or not without a fight anyway. I’m determined to break the cluttering cycle, and if I learned anything from my experience in the Hell Room, it is that indecision and inaction are the loving parents of each newborn piece of clutter. So if you’ll pardon me, I have a date with my sewing machine…
in the Hell Room in the Art Room. Wish me luck!
Or Garfield, wish him luck. He might really need it.
April 12, 2018 § 5 Comments
So I’m currently taking a poll to determine the fate of Garfield the latch-hook rug. Yes, when it comes to getting rid of things, I’m that desperate- apparently certain items require a crowd-sourced intervention. And let me tell you, Garfield is terrified. Or maybe it’s me. Hard to tell.
Ever since I cleaned out my own personal Hell Room, he’s has been scrunched up on an armchair in the library-hallway-room tormenting me. Yes, through a display of sheer Herculean willpower on my part I did manage to part with many terrible, horrible things during my Year of No Clutter, but Garfield was clearly not one of them. I mean, he’s juuuuuuust weird enough to be intriguing. Just random enough to be endearing.
Plus he has a face. Which is always hard.
Do I want him? Need him? Have any idea whatever to do with him? No. How do I feel every single time I lay eyes on him, messing up my armchair, cluttering up my tiny little reading area? Annoyed. Irritated.
For many people, the answers to those questions would be enough. They’d toss him in the trash or charity donation box and that would be that- not another thought would be given to the matter.
I am clearly not one of those people. Instead, I second guess. I think about how Garfield was, for a time, an extremely cool cartoon character. Really! If you were there, you’ll back me up on this, I know. In the late seventies when Jim Davis came out with the comic strip, Garfield represented a totally new idea: the Uber-Anti-Cat, the exact polar opposite of say, Hello Kitty. He was decidedly not cute. Not affectionate. Not demure and purring and sweet. Instead he was grouchy, lazy, and possessed of a propensity to eat all the lasagna within the nearby vicinity. He was a cat with chutzpah.
As a kid I read the strip religiously in the Sunday funnies, on the floor, by the heat grate, competing with the family dog to see who could sit most directly in the path of the intermittently blowing hot air. I had a t-shirt that my mom bought me when she went back to school with a picture of Garfield on it. He was unenthusiastically holding a college pennant in his hand with the thought bubble “So this is Pace University. Big, fat, hairy deal.”
In the early eighties, this qualified as highly sophisticated humor.
(That is until Bloom County came in and took over in a walk. Don’t even get me started. I still miss Opus.)
And then I think about all the many, many, MANY latch-hook rugs I made as a kid. I was an artsy-craftsy kid born to decidedly not-artsy-crafty parents, so I was constantly trying to learn new crafts, and yet there was no internet to teach me. !!! Instead of learning the complicated things I longed to know such as knitting or sewing or embroidery, I made ropes and ropes of macrame, dozens of wonky little yarn pom-poms, piles and piles of latch hook rugs… projects that were as easy as they were purposeless. My mom kept buying the latch hook rug kits because they were cheap, but once they were done I always wanted them made up into little zippered, decorative pillows for my room, which was expensive. In the interest of not having to take out a second mortgage on our house, she decided to stop having the rugs made into pillows right around the time I finished Garfield, which is why he remains unfinished to this day.
So. Now that I’ve told you all that, if the poll tells me to, can I really bear to pitch Garfield? Or maybe it’s the other way round: now that I’ve told you the story, maybe I’ll be released from my obligation to him, like a character in a fairy tale who has broken the magic spell. Hard to say. I keep imagining myself at the charity shop, trying to donate Garfield the Latch-Hook Rug and being violently overcome with remorse, much to the surprise and consternation of the little old ladies who take donations there. Hopefully (are you listening, Clutter-Gods?) HOPEFULLY that is not where this is all going. That would not be fun for anyone, you know.
By the way, have I mentioned that I also have latch-hook-rug Odie?