A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

In the process of installing some new floors and rearranging a few doors and walls we’ve had to completely empty most of the rooms of the house. In the process I’ve come to realize that I like the look of an empty room or, at least, a room with nothing more than a few pieces of furniture. Call me one of those controversial minimalists (with, in my youth, maximalist tendencies).

A few years ago a group of archaeologists and anthropologists at UCLA undertook a meticulous study of the cluttery habits of 32 families in Los Angeles and published a book Life at Home in the Twenty First Century. The book has the distanced vibe of what it would be like if a group of archaeologists from the future excavated a 21st century home and reported the results. Why the photo shrines on the metal food storage units?

The book is worth reading (ironically, I just sold my copy to reduce book clutter). While I no longer own the book I was happy to discover the short, three part video series on the project which I’ve embedded for your weekend enjoyment.

Part II

Part III

What was especially interesting for me about these videos is that they address the complex intersection of clutter and child rearing, something that we don’t have experience with.

What to Do With Junk Mail and Shredded Paper

Image: Max Pixel.

Perhaps obsessing over reducing junk mail while simultaneously generating a metric freak-ton of construction debris is a bit of a pathological redirection, but I’m really tired of the daily chore of transferring the mail straight to the recycling. I’ve thought about asking our nice mail person to just drop the mail straight into the blue bin, but that would insult her noble profession.

Recycling junk mail may not even do much good. Recycling is dirty, complicated and, at least in part, just a ruse to make us all feel less guilty about shopping. Listen to our two part interview with Kreigh Hampel, recycling coordinator for the city of Burbank if you’d like to get the lowdown on what it’s like on the receiving end of all our garbage (Part 1, Part 2). And the possibility of a trade ware with China may make things even more complicated. China no longer wants our trash.

So what to do about reducing paper waste at the source aside from the obvious (sign up for paperless bills). The Data & Marketing Association will grant you the privilege of not getting receiving their trashy mailings for a $2 fee. Thank you Adam Smith! Thankfully you can remove deceased relatives from their database for free. Just don’t try to fake your own junk mail death as the DMA, apparently, checks. To opt out of credit card applications head here.

And what to do with all that shredded paper? We’ve had both our mail and credit card numbers stolen so I have to shred a considerable amount of paper every month. Shredded paper is a big problem for recyclers and a trade war will only make it worse.

Assuming you’ve done your best to stop incoming junk mail, what can you do with the stuff that still clogs the mail box? I have a very short list:

Junk Mail

Shredded Paper

I’ve also been pondering the possibility of making lumber with junk mail and/or shredded paper bound together with resin. I’m not the only person who’s had this idea but, unfortunately, it involves plastics which I don’t like to work with if at all possible.

If you know of a good way to stop junk mail or re-use paper please leave a comment!

Do I Need Books?

In order to begin the restoration project we commenced a month ago, I had to box up the contents of our bookshelves. Not once have I had any need or desire to open any of those boxes and retrieve a book. Which leads to an uncomfortable question for an author: do I need to own any books?

One of the extreme tidying methods suggested by Fumio Sasaki, author of Goodbye Things, is to box your possessions, wait for a reasonable period of time and if you don’t use any of those items, send them to the thrift store. If I were to use this method my entire library, with the exception of a few books I left out of the boxes, would be cast off.

I’ve realized that in those boxes I have books which:

  • I’ve read and will probably never read again.
  • I will probably never read but think that I should read.
  • Are a souvenir of some place or experience.

These need to go. More tricky will be the books:

  • To which we contributed articles or chapters.
  • I know the library doesn’t have and that I think I will read someday.
  • Which are reference books or cookbooks that we regularly use.

These latter books I will keep but could probably do without (I lack the iron will of Fumio Sasaki).

Interestingly, I’ve found myself reading more now that I can’t access my books. Three days a week I go to the YMCA which is mere steps from the vast Los Angeles Central Library. I can, pretty much, find any book I want there. I also have an iPad which I use to download public domain books as well as some new ebooks that the library makes available for free.

Sometimes one’s personal library can devolve into a kind of virtue signaling, a way to seem smart when visitors drop by. In my case it’s definitely time for a book winnowing and, yes, I will still have a bookshelf populated with books I use for reference. Kelly has her own books and shelf.

Of course books have a tendency to accumulate and I have no doubt that I will have to go through a book cleaning process again in the future. In the meantime I hope to remember that books are meant to be read, used and passed on to someone else.

Soap as a Furniture and Floor Finish

An old idea still practiced in some northern European countries, dissolved soap flakes can be used as a furniture and floor finish. Soap is non-toxic and, as Christopher Schwarz points out in this video, your clothes get cleaner when you take on this annual chore. And that’s the only catch: like wax, you have to re-apply at least once a year as part of a household wide soapy cleaning ritual.

More detailed info on soap finishes here.

What Would William Morris Say?

Tidying prophetess Marie Kondo has her “spark joy” test. Hold an object, ask if it “sparks joy” and if not, send it to the thrift store to clutter some other person’s house. I’ve been working on another de-cluttering concept, currently in the beta testing stage, that will have us all ask, “what would William Morris say?”

William Morris, one of the most prominent members of the Arts and Crafts movement, took part in a last ditch effort to bring dignity back to work and stave off the horrors of an industrialized, consumer culture. His mantra, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” is a sentiment I feel the need to foreground in my own struggles with clutter and consumer culture. This is why I’m introducing the new William Morris Meme™.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re at Home Depot looking at patio furniture. As yourself, “what would William Morris say?” Then picture the William Morris Meme:

What if you’re arguing with your spouse over a certain Ikea impulse purchase:

Or you’re pondering a trip to Costco:

I know, the salmon is a bargain, but William Morris thinks you’ll end up with a basket full of pizza pockets and a Taco Bell hoodie.

How about spending some time on Facebook?

I think I’ve got the makings of a new anti-consumerist app. Unfortunately, I doubt that Zuck’s tech-bro pals will send over any venture capital.