Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘organization’

Organizing the New Year

In Fulfillment, Survival on January 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I just took down the Christmas tree, packed up the crèche, and wrapped the other decorations in tissue. The only remnants are the wreath on the door, which is more seasonal in my mind, and the Advent wreath on the table, since the candles aren’t yet burned to nubbins.

As much as I love the Christmas holiday, I also relish getting the house back in order, shifting from holiday food back to “real” stuff, and being able to devote my time to projects without deadlines. Or, at least, projects that don’t all have the same deadline.

But there’s something about the holiday season, or the onset of winter, or the approach of the new year, that makes me want to declutter, reorganize, increase my virtue, double my productivity. That made me extra susceptible to buying a new book, in spite of my best intentions.

I’ve long had a soft spot for books on time management and organization. Over the past several years, I winnowed my collection down to just one yard of shelf space; only a month ago, I was thinking I could probably free up that space, too: My problem isn’t with knowing what to do, it’s with doing it.

But somehow, when the email arrived early this week announcing the paperback edition of Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutter Your Life in One Week, my defenses were down. I was already, as I said, yearning for a simpler, less decorated home. I was anticipating getting back on post-Christmas track. I subscribe to Erin’s blog, Unclutterer, and have gotten good ideas or motivation from it, as well as the weekly chuckle from the unitasker. And it’s so easy to click those links, you know; Amazon surpassed expectations by delivering the book the very next day.

One of the reasons I’m sheepish about my collection of books about organization is that if I spent as much time organizing as reading about it, well… you know. But this week between the holidays is a hiatus in some ways, so I whipped through the book.

It’s been most of a week, and my life is not uncluttered. It was an enjoyable read, but it’s really best suited for someone like my son, who’s lived in an apartment (leaving most of his clutter at our house, I might add) for a couple of years and probably hasn’t yet been hard enough pressed to build much routine into his life.

I suspected this about the best audience for the book when I read in the first chapter that I should clear my “sentimental clutter” before the official decluttering week begins. I figure it will take me at least five years to do that. Not only do I have the lifetime accumulations of three kids to sort through—and negotiate with them about—but probably 80 percent of what’s in my house would qualify as “sentimental clutter.”

I know that my cookbook collection, for example, takes up more space than it should. But in the mix are The Vegetarian Epicure, which taught me to cook without meat; the wooden recipe box my grandfather made, which holds a few recipes only because I haven’t gotten around to transferring all of them to my actual recipe storage system; and a church cookbook published the year I was born. There are enough decisions only among the cookbooks to tie me up for at least a month.

Right off the bat, the uncluttered life in one week is a dream shattered. And as I read through the day-by-day chapters, I recognize that each day could take a month or longer.

Weeding through my wardrobe, which is slated for Monday morning, I probably could do in half a day. Organizing my desk and the rest of my office, though, which I’m supposed to have done by Monday afternoon, is a rather more daunting task. A conservative estimate: six weeks. And that’s if I can organize full-time. This is partly, of course, because my office is at home; Erin prefers “work/life symbiosis” to “work/life balance,” and I certainly live that.

Organizing my kitchen is slated for Wednesday evening, and again I’m stymied. My kitchen includes an enormous amount of “sentimental clutter,” from the Willow Ware and Jewel Tea dishes I inherited from my grandmother to the ceramics my daughter and I painted at Paint-A-Pot. If I’d already disposed of all of that with the “sentimental clutter” step before the week began… well, then, I guess an evening might do it.

At least for me, I came to recognize, this “one week” to an uncluttered life is metaphorical more than literal, aligning with my understanding of the Creation story. I can only aspire to achieve my uncluttering in something less than an eon.

I’m glad I got the book, though, and spent the time reading it. There are good ideas in it that I can use sooner or later. What I like best is one of the questions Erin proposes one ask before buying something: “Does this item help me develop the remarkable life I want to live?”

I like that question. It reminds me of something I heard in a sermon in the weeks before Christmas. We tend to think of promises as something held in the future, like “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” But Christmas is a reminder that because of Emmanuel, “god with us,” every moment holds promise. That’s a notion that crosses many spiritual practices, it strikes me.

That’s as close as I’m coming to a New Year’s Resolution this year: Do my best to remember that every moment holds promise and that I can develop a remarkable life. Less clutter—both physical and psychological—may result from that mindfulness. We’ll see.

My spousish one wandered in while I was writing this piece, Erin’s book at my side.

“Are you uncluttering?” he asked.

“No, I’m writing about uncluttering,” I said.

Between reading and writing about it, I can probably keep my clutter intact for some time.

–Lois Maassen

I Love My Shirt

In Survival on December 27, 2010 at 11:50 pm

“I love my shirt. I love my shirt. My shirt is so comfortably lovely.”

So goes the old song . But Donovan is not the reason I rock my Brooks Brothers’ forward-point collar, pinpoint cotton, white, dress shirts. He can’t decode my reasons for wearing them nearly every day, nearly everywhere.

My 10 white shirts are going through the laundry now, part of a cycle that begins with me quickly sweeping up the shirts where they have landed in laundry room, bedroom, closet, gym, and bath, mixing up the bluing agent I use in lieu of bleach. These suckers cost me around $75 a pop when I can get them on sale, and I do everything I can to keep them in circulation. So bluing and washing. But they will air-dry on plastic hangers, and serve me for years before I buy the next batch, the brand, model, and size all saved on a list of my sartorial standards and shopping links (I buy all my clothes online), which I keep in an EverNote file for safe keeping.

Hanging next to my 10 laundered shirts are my black pants, made by a designer who understands how to drape a normal female body (Here’s looking at you Eileen Fisher. Please don’t abandon us.). My underthings, too, are uniform. And my shoes.

Socks and sweaters, I mostly make.

I wear a uniform, and have done so for years and years. There was a time when this uniform was just for home use. After-work clothes. Weekend wear. But as connectedness chafed, breached, and finally erased the lines of demarcation between my professional and personal life, the idea of maintaining separate wardrobes — particularly when one of those wardrobes was unwieldy, uncomfortable, complicated, time-consuming and expensive — became silly. Just…. silly.

But I have many other reasons for choosing to wear a uniform. I present them here not to try to convert readers to a uniformed existence, but really to make a public explanation, in hope that it may find its way to the people who, I know, are annoyed by my choice. A sartorial apologia, if not an apology.

Buying Time. We are born with one commodity whose measure we can’t take — Time. Time. Time. We know only that we don’t have enough of it. We can increase the time we have to do the things we love by decreasing the time we spend doing things we don’t, or by eliminating unnecessary spinning. We can trade time, but can’t buy more. So, let’s say I spend 15 minutes a day deciding, finding (which belt, which socks, which hose, which bra, which bodyshaper for what shape, which accessories and outerwear), assembling, and donning a single outfit. (And we know it can often take a great deal longer, if you add hand-washing and ironing, and the once- or twice-a-month melt-down into abject despair +/- closet rage.) That tiny amount of time, a radically low estimate, still adds up to about 6 16-hour days every year of my life. Add to that the hours spent shopping for clothes, online, in boutiques and malls, which I will make out to be a conservative 16 hours a month. Now we’re up to 18 full days a year I could be spending re-reading Middlemarch or knitting something lovely while listening to Orlando. Again. This is a good trade. I don’t like managing clothes or shopping for them. At all. Many women do, but I have never been one of them. Not when I was 12. And not now.

Psychological Cost. Especially not now. I am not fit. But even at my most fit, my body was never fashionable. Would have been, in 15th Century Italy. I could have owned that century. But I have a normal female 50-year-old body. I’ve earned my lumps and my droops, and no one designs clothes for me. Or not clothes I would wear. The less time I spend in badly lit dressing rooms trying on clothes that underscore how my body doesn’t fit society’s expectations, the better. By never, ever, going into those stores, or giving that industry my money, I avoid massive psychological costs. I am a happier person. I buy a little smugness. I wear a Cheshire Cat’s grin. Ha. Beat that bad thing. Ground it to dust. Poof! By not paying attention to fashion, it simply disappears.

Waste. I’m not a frugal person. Not by a long shot. I wear Brooks Brothers’ shirts and Eileen Fisher slacks. My shoes, uniform Danskos for half the year, Uggs for Michigan’s other half, are not cheap. I buy expensive wool to knit sweaters whose cost, if we used my hourly earnings as a measure, would stretch into the thousands. But. The Danskos I wear today I bought 4 years ago. The Uggs date from some time before they were fashionable. (I don’t wear them with mini-skirts.) Well-made sweaters last for decades. My shirts go for 6 years if I’m careful. When fashion’s profiles change by the season, not the year, and certainly not the half-decade, the closet turnover of the fashion-forward woman makes me glad only a very tiny minority of us can fit into or afford fashion-forward clothes. Kudos to folks who offer their clothes to resale shops, of course. Fashion trickles down, I realize. But the longer I wear my clothes, the less they cost me and everybody else. I believe. Does that make sense? I think it does. It’s my blog post, so it does. But go ahead and comment to tell me why I’m crazy. I’m ready to hear about it.

Formative Influence. Here, I could cite history. I was raised in the U.S. Navy. (I say in the service rather than by a serviceman, because I completely believe that military kids and spouses serve their country alongside the troop member. Don’t try to argue that one with me. I served for 21 years. I don’t happen to have any medals to show for it.)

Or I might trot out my Roman Catholicism, except that I never attended a Catholic school. I just admired those uniforms from afar. My lust for Tartan plaid was hotter than a Japanese businessman’s.

But the biggest influence on me came through my first boss. His name was Tom Symons. He was a Northern Michigan Renaissance Man on the order of the original Abercrombie. (What’s become of Abercrombie and Fitch must bother old Tom’s mind as he ties and casts dry flies on some trout stream in the great beyond.) He seemed to channel Teddy Roosevelt and the Buddha and Jackie Gleason all at the same time. He was big and moustached and booming and tough and soft and formidable. I was a bit in love with him. And he wore a uniform. Everything came in the mail from Abercrombie’s Manhattan shop. Khaki pants, blue oxford-cloth, button-down shirts. White socks. Jack Parcels, I think? (Ed: Alert pals have noted my misspelling Purcells. And also noted my addition of a pair of tangarine-colored Vans this summer. Correct, both of you. I have many weaknesses… Otoh, the Vans might become uniform.) Or something very like them. Something warmer in the winter, but I don’t recall. He sent his clothes to the cleaner. My job included taking them in and collecting them. He had sets of maybe 40. That meant 40 long-sleeve shirts, 40 short-sleeve. 40 winter-weight khakis, and 40 summer-weight. The number allowed him to think about laundry just once a month. He’d worn this uniform for so long, no one could remember when he settled on it. We all believed he married his wife in his uniform, though I never had evidence of it. He was the one who taught me that if you find the right clothes once, you really don’t have to repeat the exercise. Why would you do the same thing over and over and over? When you could be catching fish? Or panning for gold? Or camp-hopping in Alaska?

In my work, I found more people who wore and wear uniforms: Ray Eames. Dean Kamen. Steve Jobs. All interesting people so wrapped up in doing what they love they simply couldn’t be bothered to spend time on garment management. I realize I am not a genius, nor contributing in huge ways to the advancement of our civilization. But I’ll take my inspiration from people like these any day.

Irony. I know it’s a cheap form of humor, and a bad basis for inspiration, but I have just discovered that the very people responsible for fashion madness and impossible-for-me couture choose simple uniforms for themselves. The tastemakers. The standard setters. (Blink, blink.) The audacity.

Slipstream. I wake thinking about my day, and my thoughts travel with me, uninterrupted as I fall into my shirt, my slacks, maybe a sweater. I have coffee in hand in minutes, dressed, and ready for my day.

Having decided the outfit is appropriate for everything from washing the dog to meeting with clients has made it so. I work in a creative field, and am expected to have my quirks. In five years since taking my uniform to work, exactly one client has noted my choice. I was a little disappointed to discover that people really didn’t notice at all, unless they were family or close friends. I hoped to have this conversation with someone, much sooner than this. But the truth is, most people pay more attention to what they are wearing — and whether it’s appropriate, fitting, tucked correctly, accessorized appropriately, or not — and not to what you are wearing. My clothes are not nearly as interesting as the reason my clients want to meet with me — which is them and their business, driving their success. And that’s as it should be.

I love my shirt. It really is comfortably lovely. It’s not so much the brand as the artifact of a man’s pinpoint cotton dress shirt. It’s a nearly perfect garment for a busy human. I look nothing like Diane Keaton, but the Annie Hall essence lives in the man’s dress shirt, at least in my head. The softness of the sheets you didn’t want to leave this morning. The endlessly useful breast pocket. I don’t know how other knitters knit without one. I do love the deep red Helvetica laundry tag on the shirt-tail. Unlike 90 percent of the blouses made for women, the buttons stay on for the entire life of the shirt. With laundering, the collar curls in what my mother would call a go-to-hell sort of way. That’s as far as I can rhapsodize. It’s a shirt. A reliable, comfortable shirt. But it has come to stand for independence, freedom from fashion and trend, from wishing for a different body, and a zen-y freedom from want and lust for every new hemline and ruffle. Or maybe it’s become a kind of armor, protecting my soft insides from cultural bullies.

Now, if only I could find a really reliable pair of underwear…. Write if you can recommend anything.

–Julie Ridl

The Mechanics of the Magical

In Fulfillment on November 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I was inspired last week by a post by Katie Talo on about the power of momentum. Momentum, she says, is her “coach, mentor, and teammate,” and it propels her in the direction she’s chosen to go.

I was inspired. For a day or so. It sounded magical, that I could rely on this force to carry me forward. And then I was flummoxed, because it was hard for me to see in what direction my momentum was taking me. What if your momentum is tied to sloth, for example, or to excessive knitting, to eating Oreo cookies, or, a pivotal part of Katie’s experience with momentum, to smoking cigarettes?

This week I read “Pray It Again… and Again,” by Andrew Holecek. He’s got the answer to overcoming the inertia that keeps us moving in the same direction regardless of our intentions. He’s talking about a spiritual journey, but I’m figuring these days that everything is spiritual.

What we’re doing, he says, is working to stop “old habits that come easily and replacing them with difficult new ones.” And, the part that gives me a foothold, he recognizes that the path is “full of magic, but it is also full of mechanics.”

So it’s not just the magic of momentum. It’s also the mechanical work of making goals, writing daily checklists, developing some routines—even though they don’t feel magical—that become habits that redirect my momentum.

And it’s being intentional. Katie’s momentum began to build, I now realize, with a deliberate decision. It’s not disembodied magic, this momentum: It’s the magic of a wizard, exercising her own powers.

–Lois Maassen

Let Them Eat… Something

In Survival on March 20, 2010 at 8:22 pm

My good friend posted this as her Facebook status last night: “doing a menu plan and grocery list for the week. Just another exciting Friday night….” What she meant to do, I’m sure, was to comment on the ordinariness of a weekend night, a sad thing, by some lights. But what she did was to remind me of the disarray in my culinary habits.

I was once as organized as she is now. In fact, I was that organized repeatedly, as I adopted new systems. I needed to be, when I was working full time away from the home where three children waited for dinner. I was an early adopter of Mangia, recipe software for my Mac SE30 that made grocery lists from what you chose. I had binders and categories and cross-references, and a plan for every week. I still have a theoretical pattern: Monday, pasta/polenta; Tuesday, salad; Wednesday, soup….

But now the kids are living on their own, eating heaven knows what (funny how they all turn out differently). I work from my home office most days, and at the end of the day, more likely than not, my husband, C, and I turn to each other and say, “What’s for dinner?”

What’s odd about this is that some of my kitchen habits have required more planning. I’ve developed a taste for homemade granola and yogurt, both of which take some scheming. I’ve gotten pretty good at whipping up a batch of granola (because C has gotten pretty good at scarfing it by the handful as he walks through the kitchen), but you’ve got to keep oats in the house. The yogurt takes a planned eight hours—or planning for an eight-hour stretch when I’m around at the beginning and the end.

This noon, while wondering what to eat for lunch, I did manage to put some beans and rice and pork in the slow cooker with some Cajun spices, so we’ll eat dinner tonight without a problem. Except, of course, that noon is a little late to start a slow-cooker dish. I meant to say that we’ll eat dinner eventually tonight.

But most days, in spite of my noted talent for frittering, I don’t manage to fritter in the kitchen. I fritter excellently at my computer, and feel oddly virtuous doing so. I can knit for hours in any room in the house. I can distract myself—I mean, think through a problem—while doing laundry, walking out to check the mailbox, or reading just one chapter in a book. I’d be better off with a reflex to go start a pot of soup.

I’m also handicapped by my desire to make things from scratch, preferably from fresh and local ingredients. It’s way less fun to cook when you’re not chopping something fresh from the farmer’s market—and I say that even knowing that I’m only seven weeks away from losing this excuse. And since we’re, shall I say, deepening our relationship with frugality, I’m drawn to improvising with what’s on hand, whether for sewing projects or a meal. This is, of course, less fun when what you have on hand is olives, egg noodles, and garbanzo beans, but the satisfaction of making something out of nothing is undeniable.

I got fresh inspiration for menu management from an unexpected source this week. A high school friend was in touch, asking questions for clients who’d published a cookbook called The Stocked Kitchen. The premise of the book is that if you keep your pantry stocked with a specific set of ingredients, you can make any of their 300 or so recipes whenever you feel like it.

This is attractive to me. To C, less so. I should note that, left to his own devices, C would eat spaghetti five days a week and fried-egg sandwiches the other two. But it’s also true that we have quite a collection of favorite foods that we’ve developed over our years together. We don’t manage, though, to get the right ingredients in the house—in the proper combinations—very often. If we want to do better at that, it’s going to take more time, from me or from him.

The first step in the “stocked kitchen” approach is to compare the actual current contents of your kitchen to the items on the standard grocery list. This is the sixth day that’s seemed like a really worthy thing to do, and the sixth day I haven’t done it. The next step, of course, is to go to the grocery store to buy the missing ingredients. After that: menu bliss.

Except that eating fresh seasonal stuff from the farmer’s market or the garden is a kind of bliss, too. As is the aforementioned making-something-from-nothing satisfaction. As is the comfort of eating those familiar Thai chicken wraps or baked macaroni and cheese.

Maybe I can migrate toward that “stocked kitchen” list. Maybe I should review all my past systems, remind myself why I gave them up. Maybe I’ll work on that soup-pot reflex. Or maybe we’ll muddle along in disarray a while longer. At least I won’t be spending my Friday nights planning menus!

–Lois Maassen