January 18, 2004

Clutter By Any Other Name is a Mess

Today we entertained the Clutter Lady. At 10 am sharp, Lorraine, our clutter expert arrived at our door. Why did I assume someone whose job is keeping things tidy would also be on time?

We won Lorraine last spring, or rather her services, in a silent auction for our children’s daycare. I hovered over the list until the auctioneer proclaimed our item closed. We needed her badly at Chez Gates and I was determined to win.

Both my wife and I were looking forward to this day. Each of us recognized our need for some order in our household. And each of us had our different theories as to how to accomplish this. We were hoping Lorraine could offer us some new tips, encouragement, and, if necessary, act as a mediator. When she called to arrange her visit I surreptitiously and quickly filled her in on the phone before my wife had a chance to pick up the receiver. “Ok, Lorraine, here’s what I think and I’m sure you’ll agree…” She had her work cut out for her.

When it comes to disarray I am white collar and my wife's blue collar.

When it comes to disarray I am white collar and my wife’s blue collar. I sit at the kitchen table analyzing different clean-up systems and methodologies while my wife can construct a new coat closet arrangement in her sleep. Together we have the potential to be a top-notch organizational team. But the line between marital bliss and marriage therapy is a thin one. In matters of our heart-wrenching messes, it’s best to tread lightly. But there is hope.

Last month I almost tripped down the basement stairs, trying to dodge books, piles of papers, and other assorted items that were destined to eventually find their proper storage place downstairs. The next day I came home to find a totally cleared and functional pathway. And it’s remained in this state for over six glorious weeks. Now, every time I go down those stairs I am in love.

Our foyer is usually festooned with winter boots and coats, school and work backpacks, and the daily mail all casually and habitually strewn about the floor and every available shelf within sight. Last week I came home to find the closet coat bar had been raised three feet and a new Elfa® storage system with baskets for our hats, gloves, and other winter gear was neatly placed underneath. Since then our entrance has been pristine.

I, on the other hand, spend my lunch hours devising ways to make our nightly kitchen duties less stressful. I am of the “clean as you go” school. As I cook I put away ingredients and wash up pots and pans so I don’t have a big mess at the end of a sumptuous meal. Susie, on the other hand, is more, ah, freeform. I have a patented system for loading the dishwasher. Every kitchen dish and cup has its place. Loading is so quick and easy I could do it in my sleep (wouldn’t that be efficient?). My wife just doesn’t understand the elegance of it all. She is from Venus and I stowed away on the Mars rover.

Since our weekday schedules usually mean Susie cooks dinner and I clean up, this has led to some spirited discussions. It was turning into one of those “let go” moments for me when today, in front of our witness Lorraine my wife said that she recently read that when confronted with divergent styles (which apparently is not uncommon), it’s best if one person take on both the pre and post dinner process. That way conflict can be avoided. What an elegant system analysis! Too bad I usually arrive home too late and too tired to even defrost a frozen entré (I expect no sympathy from you, dear readers).

• • •

Today Lorraine was ours for two hours. And we started by taking her on a tour of our home. We went from room to room, outlining many of the problems we encounter. I asked her if I could videotape our meeting so we could review her comments and suggestions. Using it to remind my wife if necessary was, of course, the furthest thing from my mind.

The problem: Every day the mail is deposited in a different place throughout the house.

Susie’s Idea: compartmentalize. Place the letters and magazines in a container so you know where it is and can deal with it.

My Analysis: when you buy a container to put something in it hides it so you don’t have to deal with it. I can predict we will soon have an overflowing box full of bills and direct marketing pamphlets. Better to leave the mail in one exposed place every day so you see when it’s piling up.

Lorraine’s Notion: Seeing something that bothers you every day is no fun.

My Analysis: Don’t hide it. Deal with it. I had clipped out a Hints from Heloise column last month where she mentions her “Five Minutes or Five Things Plan.” Spend five minutes a day cleaning up an area or put away five items, whichever is easier. Miraculously, I remembered where I had filed this gem and was able to triumphantly pull it out of my hat this morning.

Lorraine’s Suggestion: A radical way of organizing is to simply take piles out of the room. Decide what you want to do in each room and don’t don’t bring an activity meant for one room into another. Only keep what is pleasing or what should be there. For example, pay your bills in one place and have a little area set aside in one room for that activity.

Susie’s Analysis: Sensible and doable.

January is traditionally “clear the way” month. Out with the old piles and in with the clear countertops and pristine closets. Susie and I had gotten a jump on this by spending each weekend in December cleaning out our attic. The key to success and marital bliss was that we both agreed that we would only spend two hours each time doing this.

Tip We Came Up With On Our Own: Limit your clutter cleanup to a discrete period of time.

Our Analysis: Thinking that you will have to spend your entire Saturday in the dusty recesses of your life is too much to bear and is a perfect recipe for failure. Limited forays into the caves of junk you’ve accumulated —How could I have ever spent money on that?!— makes you feel good and promotes further cleanup cooperation.

Lorraine’s Reaction: She thought that was a great idea and offered us a franchise.

Now, come’on. Doesn’t it feel good, no GREAT, when you’ve dispensed with a pile of clutter? And it’s easier than losing weight (our next favorite domestic activity).

This is where we were when Lorraine entered our lives. I had visions of The Learning Channel’s Clean Sweep, where a hapless couple mired in household “junque” is confronted by master experts in household efficiency (and a television camera crew). Embarrassment and humiliation is such a strong motivator. I can’t even watch that program any longer. It’s too depressing to think I could be one of them.

But Lorraine had good news for us. She was actually impressed by the work we had already done and by our wisdom and cooperation. And, actually, one of the important lessons I’ve learned when analyzing our marriage is to remember all the things we do agree on. With two children and close to four full time jobs, we both realize how many times we’ve slalomed and stepped over that slippery, mile-high slope. As a couple, we’re committed to change.

We were each given tasks and at the end of our two hours I was primed. We both were. A little positive reinforcement, a plan of action —a process we could envision and embrace.

It’s all so clear to me now. An organized life. It’s better than Prozac.

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