Everything Must Go Part 5: The nitty gritty

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A reader asked to see unvarnished “before” photos of our place, so I took a few pics which will illustrate this post. Above is a zone we’ve not attacked yet–the dreaded hall cupboard. Note the VHS tape on the far right.

Welcome back to the never-ending saga of our de-cluttering initiative, inspired by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by the tidying consultant Marie Kondo.

Sorting and purging has slowed down here at Root Simple as we bog down in the details. In Tidying Up, Marie Kondo, aka KonMari, has a specific recommended order for sorting your belongings. The first three categories are clothing, books and papers, respectively. At the end of her list she places photographs and mementos, as these are the most difficult to sort due to the emotional baggage attached them. This makes sense. And those first three big categories are easy to tackle, and make a big difference quickly, so they also make sense as a starting place. But where things get difficult is in the middle categories.

I don’t understand KonMari’s logic here. After the first three categories, she calls everything else in the house komono, which translates as  miscellaneous items. I think of it as a handy word for the contents of a junk drawer. Within the category of komono, she has a recommended order of proceeding, starting with sorting CD/DVDs, followed by beauty products, accessories, valuables, electrical equipment…and so on.

We did sit down together and sort out our CDs– what a trip through the 90’s that was! But we did not make much progress on thinning, because all it did was ignite a desire to digitize all these old albums.

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Holding my camera high to capture the top of the armoire, revealing a veritable Tutankhamun’s Tomb of hidden treasures.

From there on, though, our sorting took a turn for the worse. We just couldn’t make ourselves work in those smaller categories, because the  categories headings and their order didn’t seem to work for our stuff. What we started doing instead was attacking certain areas of the home, e.g. the cabinet under the kitchen sink, the dust bunny refuge under the bed, the mysterious items on top the armoire, the pantry shelves. This approach works, sorta, but not as well, I think, as category driven sorting. There’s more hesitation, more confusion.

Were I to do this again, I think I’d make up my own list of lesser categories, and stick to that. It is more logical to sort by category, because by rooting up all similar items in a household, you can quickly determine how much redundancy you have, what you should keep, where it should go.

We still have a few more spaces to unpack, and it’s too late to return to categorical sorting, so we’re just going to have to finish what we started.

An interesting discover: we’ve gone solo on these smaller sorting missions–these sorting sorties, if you will–and instead of being a more efficient use of time, solo work somehow makes everything less efficient. Alone, we dither. Together, we bicker, but the process moves along quickly.

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A peek into the shadows beneath our bed. In the bag, a pair of boots meant to go to the consignment store two years ago. The floor beneath the bed is all clear now.

Be aware, also, that solo sorting can lead to tears and recriminations. For instance, I disposed of a several dusty old 12 oz bottles of homemade mead–a few of which were helpfully labeled, “Bad Mead?”–which have sat on a back shelf unloved and undrunk for many years, for so long the printer ink on the labels was fading. Far longer than any aging period.

Erik caught me draining the bottles and just about had kittens. He’d planned on carbonating these bottles…someday…to see if that would improve the flavor and now I’d gone and ruined all of his work. He gathered up the survivors in his arms and hustled them off to the garage.

You see, Peaceable Sorting Wife had transformed into Ruthless Disposal Fury. It can happen to anybody.

And yes, yes, I should have consulted him before I acted–I was in the wrong. Honestly, I was caught up in the momentum and didn’t want to wait to consult him.  In my feverish mind I knew he’d want to keep them, but I also knew also he’d never even notice if they vanished. And I would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling kids and their dog…

In short, sort all but the very most personal items as a household, so everyone has a say in what stays and what goes.

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Once we gathered them all in one place, we discovered we had enough jars to can all the artisanal kraut in Brooklyn.

Another thing which happens as the sorting deepens is that you turn up some really puzzling items.

For instance, would anybody like a poster signed by all the stars of the Jim Rose Circus Side Show c.1991? I suppose it should go straight into the paper recycling, but after surviving a quarter of a century in a tube, it claims value it simply does not have. There are many things like this hidden in the depths of our closets, things you do not want, but which seem like they might be valuable, due to age or oddity. These are the most dangerous items of all.

Or perhaps you’d be interested in my not-so-attractive family china? Why couldn’t they have chosen a better pattern? Does this go to the thrift store, or should I try to consign it? But honestly, who would pay good money for such a fuddy-duddy china?

I did find that company which buys old china so they can sell replacement pieces to other people, but they put up so many hurdles just to tell you if they’ll take your set, I can’t even deal with them.

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You know, our family never once ate off this stuff. My grandma kept it squirreled away. Who knows when it was last used–but I suspect prior to WW2. My mother was sly like a fox to fob it off on me.

And what about junk silver? That is, silver coins without collector value, bent silver spoons, ugly jewelry. Do we keep it to trade for MREs and water during the zombie apocalypse? Do we take it to one of those seedy CASH FOR GOLD! places and accept whatever bad deal they offer? Do we borrow a kiln and melt it all down into DIY silver bullion? That, at least, would save space in our drawers. What do we do????

The further we get down this road, the more irksome the remaining unsorted areas become. They’re the canker on the rose, the stye in the eye, the pimple on prom night. As tired as I am of sorting, I’m dying to get into those places and root them out.

Anyway, I should not be so negative. This is just a frustrating phase. The initial excitement has worn off and now it’s down to hard work. That said, there is pleasure in seeing free space opening up around the house.

The changes are not super-obvious–it’s not like we started off living in a tottering labyrinth of our own possessions like the Collyer brothers–but the little improvements are really pleasing to the soul.

It’s so nice to open a cabinet or drawer and see empty space. Or find a cat sitting in the vast cleanliness beneath our bed. The tidy dresser drawers remain a daily joy. I finally took care of that shopping bag full of seeds which have been living behind the bedroom door for a year. All of our spare change (a hundred bucks worth!) has been collected and converted to a more usable form. These are all like little pockets of sunshine. It’s going to be good to finish.

Abandonded Christmas trees: the sad sights of January

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The last of the Christmas trees are appearing on sidewalks and curbs. When I look at these, all I see is organic matter crying out to return to the earth. These trees don’t want to go to the landfill, they want to stay in the flow, to become nutrients and habitat. The way I see it, we owe them decent treatment in return for the joy they gave us over the holidays.

It’s not that hard to strip the branches off a tree, and throw those branches and needles beneath another tree as mulch. The trunk can be made into firewood–or hugelkultur!

(Of course you don’t want to mulch with trees sprayed with fire retardant or anything other fishy business)

More Thoughts on Thinning the Library

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The books on our shelf we want you to see.

Kelly’s series of posts on the KonMari tidying method and my post on thinning out the our books, have thrown an ugly spotlight on the inner hoarder in all of us. I don’t think any other posts on this blog has been rewteeted as much as these tidying rants. Mark Frauenfelder linked to the book post on BoingBoing and the resulting comment thread contained a lot of great ideas and resources (and some awesome bookshelf porn). I thought I’d roundup a few BoingBoing reader notions:

Go Digital!
A BoingBoing commenter added a rule to my list, “If you can find a digital copy on Google books or other, toss it!” As far as ebooks go, I’m just not a fan of looking at screens for hours at a time. But the shift to “E-ink” displays is a game changer. Kelly has a Kindle Paperwhite she really likes. Ebooks bring up a lot of thorny issues, of course, about the future of libraries, digital rights management and the fragility of digitally stored information. These are topics well beyond my area of expertise. Let’s just say I’m open to both digital and old fashioned paper. I like that a lot of classics are available online for free and that digital libraries don’t take up space in our house. But I also appreciate the look and feel of physical books and the fact that they don’t require batteries.

Selling Books
I do this too. I sell through Amazon and just started using an Amazon seller’s app on Kelly’s iPod to facilitate this. One problem with this is that you end up with a pile of books that sit around until someone buys them. And just because a book has a high used price on Amazon doesn’t mean that anyone wants to buy it (weirdly high prices are often, in fact, indicate a book nobody wants). To avoid having stack of books sitting around waiting for a buyer, one commenter in Portland noted how easy it is to go down to Powells and sell and purge all at once. Alas, that doesn’t fly in Los Angeles (note to locals: please correct me if I’m wrong about that).

Bookcrossing.com
I had to resort to Wikipedia to grok Bookcrossing:

Bookcrossing . . . is defined as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” The term is derived from bookcrossing.com, a free online book club which was founded to encourage the practice, aiming to “make the whole world a library.”

The ‘crossing’ or exchanging of books may take any of a number of forms, including wild-releasing books in public, direct swaps with other members of the websites, or “book rings” in which books travel in a set order to participants who want to read a certain book. The community aspect of BookCrossing.com has grown and expanded in ways that were not expected at the outset, in the form of blog or forum discussions, mailing lists and annual conventions throughout the world.

For me, Bookcrossing confirms our hidden animistic view of our possessions. I’m not sure this facilitates getting rid of stuff. If you’re a Bookcrossing fan, please correct me. Despite reading the Bookcrossing website multiple times, I’m not sure I understand what it’s all about.

Scheduling Periodic Purges
Several people noted that curating a library (or clothes, for that matter) is an ongoing process. Some pare possessions quarterly, others yearly. Others, like us, wait for a crisis. Some have a kind of one in, one out rule–basically limiting your library to what will fit on your shelves, disallowing homeless tomes or buying more bookshelves.

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Jennie Cook’s Little Free Library

The Little Free Library Movement
Our neighbor Jennie Cook installed one of these down the street from us. It’s a box in the parkway. Anyone can leave or take a book. One funny thing that’s happened is that I’ve managed to pick up an number of our neighbor Doug Harvey’s books out of this box while he managed to pick up a half dozen of my books at the local library book sale. Thanks to our local Little Free Library, I’m looking forward to reading Doug’s copy of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Public Library Quality
No doubt about it, local libraries vary in quality and the quantity of holdings. One the reasons I enjoy being in a big city is access to a large library system.

Vanity
I love this comment by BoingBoing reader “Medievalist”:

You reveal my guilty secret… I arrange my books based on vanity, essentially peacocking my tastes and attitudes to visitors. Guy de Maupassant is not likely to be down at child’s-eye level, nor is Charles Schulz likely to be five feet off the floor. The bookshelves visitors see make me look far more erudite than I really am, with my vast collection of pre-1970 science fiction de-emphasized and my much smaller collection of philosophical, religious and art books well to the fore.

Yeah, it’s probably shallow. Or at least in my case it is, since I’m kind of embarrassed by it and would never have admitted it if you hadn’t done first.

Guilty as charged! My Harvard classics library is at eye level in the living room. My embarrassing books got purged. I suspect Doug now owns my copy of Nazi UFO Secrets.

Everything Must Go Part 4: How to Fold Your Clothes

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Welcome back to the continuing saga of our de-cluttering initiative, inspired by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by the tidying consultant Marie Kondo (aka KonMari–her method is called the KonMari Method). Today I’m just going to focus on folding clothes.

This may seem a little extreme, but this simple change in behavior seems to be making all the difference in our dresser drawers. Very simply, KonMari politely insists (while flicking her pink glitter cat o’ nine tails) that we shape our all of our foldables into neat rectangular packets and stand them cheek-by-jowl in our drawers, rather like file folders in a standing file.

As someone who has always folded clothes into squarish shapes and stacked these squares vertically in drawers, this small change has made a lot of difference for me. You can fit more stuff in a drawer by stacking vertically, certainly, but it’s hard to keep the drawers tidy, because you’re always rooting through the stacks looking for things. You can try to be careful– heaven knows I’ve tried–but eventually the stacks topple and chaos ensues. This is especially true when your drawers are overcrowded to begin with.

When clothes are lined up vertically, like file folders, you can find what you’re looking for at a glance, and remove it without disturbing the other garments. Your drawers remain tidy.

For a simpleminded soul like me, who never thought of this before, it’s a miracle.  Drawer tidying–reasserting the stacks–was always one of my least favorite household chores. I’d let it go for a long time, and live by shamefully rooting through my tangled clothing each day, searching for a certain camisole like a truffle pig rooting through oak leaves.

However, unless you have a vast plentitude of drawer space you will need to thin down your wardrobe before doing this, because you can’t cram the drawers full anymore.

I’ve discovered that this technique applies to panties and bras and socks, too. All my small things are now folded into squarish packets and arranged in two shoe boxes. It works amazingly well. My underwear drawer used to be the most chaotic of all drawers, and now everything exists  in sushi-like tidyness.  I am not sharing an image of this with the Internet. You will just have to imagine it.  It’s pretty simple. Two shoe boxes, one holding socks, the other holding bras, panties and hankies. Two rows in each box.

Let me stop here and talk about the folding itself. When I first read about the folding in Tidying Up, it sounded complicated, in fact, it sounded suspiciously like origami, which I was always bad at. Then I looked at YouTube and found videos of KonMari and similar ones by other neatnicks, who can fold like precision assembly machines, some of whom seem to enjoy arranging t-shirts compulsively by color gradient. And KonMari’s discussion of socks just plain confused me.

But here’s the deal. It’s not hard. Don’t be intimidated by the precision folding. All your foldables, from jeans to underwear, just need to be folded into vaguely rectangular packets by whatever method you think best. Fatter shapes are better, because fat bundles stand up better on their own. KonMari is big into the standing up thing, but since clothes rarely have to stand on their own (say, if you empty your drawer of all but one shirt) it really doesn’t matter.

All you have to think about is the width of the drawer or the shoe box or whatever space you are using. It makes sense to maximize this space by determining how many rows you can best fit in the drawer and how wide each rectangle should be to make that happen. Does that make sense? Our drawers are quite narrow, so they hold two rows of t-shirts. I fold accordingly.

Here’s a short, straightforward video showing KonMari folding a shirt. Her creases are scarily precise–just ignore that–but the overall technique is understandable, even for the slobby. That shape she ends up with is the kind of shape you’re going for. That’s all you really have to know. Peruse YouTube at your own risk for folding fetish videos:

One helpful refinement I’ve discovered is to fold as to make the item more identifiable in the drawer. You can fold t-shirts so their design ends up on the upper edge of the rectangle, for instance, so you can tell one shirt from another. Or you can fold a garment so the neck hole or waist band is facing up, so you can see the tags or logos inside.

My underwear is folded into rough squares, as I said above. That just worked better with their shape and the dimensions of the shoe box. Erik’s boxers and boxer briefs, being more substantial than my panties, are folded into rectangles and live in rows in a drawer, like his t-shirts, unconfined by a shoe box.

I’m still not sure what KonMari is on about with the socks, but I get that it’s not good to stretch the cuff of one sock over the top of another–it stretches the elastic over time, leading to a bad case of floppy sock. So no sock balls. But as far as folding socks, I just sort of roll/fold them up like cinnamon rolls and tuck them into the shoe box in rows. It works in the shoe box.

Our cat, Phoebe (PhoebeKatz), especially approves of this new arrangement. You see, our drawers are not in a standard chest of drawers, but are part of some arcane Ikea organizing system that we repurposed and installed in the closet. There’s head space between each drawer. When we had more clothing, this head space was stacked full of clothes. Now, that space is free. This means that the cats can get into the drawers. Phoebe has made the lowest drawer, where I keep my pants, her new nest, and defends it against all comers. I see her eyes gleaming balefully in there as I write. She just drove off Trout with some truly threatening growls and one good swipe from the depths. I tried to take a picture for you all, but it’s impossible to photograph a black cat sleeping on black pants in a dark hole.

Good thing I don’t have any white pants, eh? (White pants! Can you imagine??? They’d have to be made out of paper so I could burn them at the end of each day.)

Everything Must Go Part 3: Clothing

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Cats love the chaos of cleaning

In this post we continue the tale of our tidying up using the KonMari Method discussed in this post.

Clothing is the first category Marie Kondo (KonMari) recommends for sorting, presumably because her clients find it least confusing category to tackle–and also, I suspect, because it is the most immediately rewarding as well. It’s really pleasing to see your shirts hanging in a tidy row, your drawers brought to order, and it can happen fairly quickly.

To begin, she asks that you empty your closets and all of your drawers all at once, and search around the house and root out clothing that might be hiding elsewhere, like the laundry room or your gym bag, and dump them into a huge sorting pile. (In her method you also tackle coats and shoes and handbags at this point.) I put all my things on our bed. It’s sobering to see how much you have, all in one place. My mound filled our entire queen-sized bed, even though I believe my wardrobe was fairly small, relatively speaking.

The premise behind all sorting in the KonMari method is to only keep things with give you joy, things which feel good when you hold them in your hands, things with which you feel a rapport. If you don’t feel this connection, you thank the item for its service to you and “release it” to the thrift store.

For KonMari, it all comes down to your emotional relationship with the item–your positive relationship, that is. Nothing is kept through guilt or false nostalgia. She doesn’t believe in following the more usual sorting advice, such as discarding anything you haven’t worn for a year, or  doesn’t fit your current body shape, etc.,  but I also kept those ideas in my mind as well as I sorted through my clothes.

In the end, I kept very little. My new wardrobe is a little austere, I have to admit. I could probably fit all of it in a large suitcase. But I also have to say that I would pare it down more if I could, because I don’t love any of it all that much–I kept the best of it and what I knew I needed. Ever since I thought of the uniform idea, I see all of my current clothing as something I will soon be rid of. So I suppose I’m not the best role model for someone who genuinely likes her clothes and is struggling to pare down her wardrobe.

But anyway, here are some things to think about when sorting through your own closets. This is more me than KonMari, but the sternness is entirely KonMari inspired. Everything must go!

  • That stain won’t come out, and no, you will not eventually dye over it or  sew a patch over the stain or upcycle it in any other way
  • You probably won’t repair it, but if you insist, set aside things which need mending/hemming/buttons etc. and give yourself a strict deadline for repairing them or taking them to a tailor/seamstress-and a near deadline too, like 48 hours. If you haven’t bestirred yourself to fix the problems, it’s time for the clothes to go. I fixed the buttons on one blouse, and made a failed attempt to upcycle a t-shirt. Having made these gestures, I feel okay about sending the rest of it off.
  • You don’t need so many t-shirts. Seriously, how many do you have?
  • Related: You don’t need so many work clothes. Yes, you need some grubbies, but not drawers full of worn out shirts, disreputable shorts, raggedy jeans and stretched out yoga pants. Remember, today’s clothing is tomorrow’s work wear. There will always be more. The same goes for “comfort wear,” which in our house is fairly indistinguishable from work clothes. I’d like to sturdy functional, pocket-rich work clothing and clean, comfortable, attractive lounge wear. Somehow this will all work with the uniform idea.
  • You don’t have to keep it because it was a gift, or because it was expensive, or because you wore it on a special occasion. The memories are in your head, not in the garment.
  • Take an honest look at your underwear. Treat yourself to some new underwear for the new year.
  • Some items of clothing are perfectly lovely and have fond memories attached but just are not you anymore. They relate more to the person you used to be, and we are always changing, after all. Better to let them go free, and find someone else who can love them now, than to doom them to sit in the back of your closet. (This was the most difficult one for me. This round, I finally gave away some of my more fanciful clothing, stuff which related more to my younger self. I gave away my  silly hats and opera gloves and silk scarves and even the black shearling coat I wore at our wedding. I simply don’t wear these things anymore. The coat was the hardest of all. I loved that coat back in the day, but now I only love the memory of loving it. To comfort myself, I try to think of some Young Thing shopping in the thrift store, thrilled to find my rock star coat, as I was thrilled to find it in my day.)
  • On the other hand, it is okay to keep some things simply because they make you feel good when you see them and touch them. KonMari tells the tale of some hideous old t-shirt she’s had since she was a teenager which she won’t wear in public but loves, and won’t give up. The key is that the thing should earn its space in your closet. If it gives you joy in the present, it should stay. If it gives you only memories of joy, it should probably go.
  • Don’t get too hung up on the item’s destination. You may intend to sell some of your things, or give them to someone in particular, but don’t let them malinger, waiting for you to deal with them. That’s the path to renewing the clutter in your home. Imagine bags of things marked “to sell” hunkering in some corner, gathering dust – don’t do that to yourself. Don’t undermine your tidying. As with mending, give yourself an action deadline, and if you don’t meet it, accept that it’s okay to give these things away.
  • Finally, a cheat of sorts, one which KonMari would not like. If you have an out-of-sight space, like a garage,  you can, for a short period, put aside a sack of clothing which you are unsure about giving away. Think of it as a trial separation. Honestly, as in most relationships, that “not sure” feeling usually translates to “no.” But sometimes we need a little help letting go. Enjoy your spacious new closet. Don’t look at these items for a month.  Then open up the sack. If you feel a sense of “Oh, I missed you so!” then maybe that piece of clothing should stay. This is rare. I’ve done this many times, and I’ve only reclaimed clothing once or twice.

Next up, we’ll continue with clothing and talk about KonMari’s thing about folding clothes and drawer organization.