Books March 2002

Leaving It to the Professionals

Clearing away clutter is no substitute for keeping house
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Two days after Christmas, I rolled a huge shopping cart into the home-organization department of the Burbank Ikea and threw in so many baskets and boxes and under-bed storage units that my small son (who had been standing in the front of the cart, navigating) decided to clamber out, leaving just enough room for a big wicker hamper. We were there because the prospect of cleaning up the house after Christmas had struck me as unpleasant and oppressive, whereas the prospect of driving out to Burbank and eating a meatball lunch in the Ikea cafeteria had struck me as attractive and spirit-lifting. Best of all, we would not be shirking the work back home; we would be beginning it—or so I persuaded myself. For, like many women of my proximate age and social position (householders, mothers, irritable presiders over vast domestic holdings of Lego blocks and takeout menus and teetering stacks of unexamined shop-by-mail catalogues), I am preoccupied by clutter; almost every domestic task seems to begin (and also to sputter out) in an effort to eliminate it, or at the very least to assign it to a well-chosen receptacle. This shared preoccupation has given rise to a wide host of American phenomena, only one of which is the Ikea home-organization department.

The anti-clutter movement is enormous, having spawned countless books along with magazine articles (and actual magazines), videos, classes, catalogues, and the 1,500-member-strong National Association of Professional Organizers. The "Eastern art" of feng shui is practiced in thousands of upscale, with-it households, and it proceeds from a "clear your clutter" premise. Anti-clutter campaigns make for excellent voyeur sport; the visits to Oprah of the master organizer Julie Morganstern are never disappointing. Sometimes Oprah has Morganstern perform spot inspections of Harpo employees' offices, events that offer superb moments of reality television: office doors swinging open in the manner of an FBI raid; shocked workers blinking into the camera lights, caught in flagrante with their overflowing mail crates and ripening piles of exercise clothes, their half-eaten lunches moldering on paper-strewn desktops. Far more entertaining, however, are the home visits, which are not feared but, rather, highly coveted, and for which the competition is stiff. Viewers write long, importuning letters describing unabashedly the slovenly states of their homes, which they will gladly reveal to a national television audience if only Oprah will send them some help. If the winner is really lucky, it is Morganstern herself who will make a visit, bringing along her Hefty bags and plastic sorter baskets and brisk "nothing shocks me" professionalism. The houses are never squalid; what they are is crammed to the gunwales with stuff—stuff that's been packed into drawers and cupboards and closets, no rhyme or reason to it, and not an inch of space to spare. No matter how big the kitchens are (and many of them are plenty big), they are never big enough, in part because the success of buy-in-bulk superstores has left people with an astonishing, pre-apocalyptic quantity of supplies. The video tour that begins each segment often reveals curious, forgotten outposts of spaghetti sauce or Formula 409 in the garage or beneath the stairs. No matter what area of the house is under consideration (medicine cabinet, linen closet, kids' rooms), it is sure to be an absolute horror. In the old days, of course, this kind of general chaos would occasion a thorough spring-cleaning, with the children sent upstairs to clear out the mess underneath their beds, and Dad dispatched to the garage under similar orders. But nowadays the home is foreign territory, a kind of very large hotel suite unintended for long-term habitation, and when the whole thing gets so overstuffed that it threatens to explode, the time has come to call on an expert.

The experts, Lord knows, are sympathetic to the psychological magnitude of tidying the house. The Zen of Organizing, which is studded with the inspirational words of boffo organizers from Plutarch to Martha Graham (although nothing at all from Joe Stalin, who by all accounts ran a very tight ship), begins with a description of how the author, Regina Leeds, sits with her clients, "calming" them before they open a single drawer: "We consciously leave fear and judgment behind." They also dress carefully and eat sensibly before beginning the work. Many authors of anti-clutter books mention cluttering as a possible manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it is not uncommon for them to discuss pharmaceutical approaches to dealing with a hall table heaped with Pennysavers and unsolicited AOL start-up disks. Stop Clutter From Stealing Your Life, by Mike Nelson, opens with a disclaimer: "I am not a professional organizer, psychologist, or psychiatrist," Nelson tells us in all earnestness, and his book (which is couched in the language of twelve-step recovery programs) includes a chapter on "the medical view" of clutter and another on how clutter can disrupt a person's sex life, which goes far beyond the logistical problems posed by too many back issues of The New Yorker fighting for space in the marriage bed.

Practitioners of the many home-organization philosophies adhere to a few basic tenets, central among them the solemnly held belief that any possession—no matter how serviceable or expensive—that is stored unused and forgotten in a closet or a cupboard will eventually metastasize into clutter. Once this happens, there's hell to pay. The moment your stylish black-and-chrome cappuccino machine makes the terrible one-way crossing from "appliance" to "clutter," it stops simply occupying valuable shelf space and becomes an enemy within your home, capable of draining your energy, sapping your chi, interrupting your sleep, and generally bumming you out. Step one for the professional organizer is persuading the owner of said cappuccino maker to get rid of the thing before it causes real problems. This is often an uphill battle; for one thing, the owner may still be smarting over the 1,200 clams she forked out to Williams-Sonoma for the really good cappuccino maker, the one with the energy-efficient standby mode. Once she has been convinced of the need to chuck the thing, however, the method of disposal is almost irrelevant—although I'm often surprised, given how expensive many of these items are, at what short shrift the notion of hosting a garage sale gets. ("Ugh! Not worth it!" the Washington, D.C.-based organizer Jill Lawrence said when I broached the subject, telling me that garage sales make sense only if one is "on disability" and therefore broke, or new to the neighborhood and therefore lonely—a combination that stigmatizes the enterprise pretty effectively: "Garage Sale Saturday: Broke and Lonely, Everything Must Go.") Some disposal suggestions are peculiar in the extreme. "Take pictures of any items which are simply too bulky to store," recommends Harriet "The Miracle Worker" Schechter in her book Let Go of Clutter, and "then bid a fond adieu to the actual objects." It's a suggestion that would surely lead to some mighty odd conversations way down the road: "Hey, Granny, what's this?" "Why, that's a snapshot of my old standby-mode cappuccino maker, Johnny! Top of the line!"

Even more paralyzing than the prospect of letting go of one's expensive impulse purchases is the thought of hauling out and categorizing the thousand smaller things: the handfuls of half-sorted mail; the videotapes with and without their boxes; the reams of children's artwork; tangles of unmatched socks; outgrown Little Mermaid costumes; multiple packages of Imodium, most of them expired (the stockpiling and subsequent discovery and disposal of expired medications is a gold mine for drug companies); the birthday-cake candles and unspent Chuck E. Cheese tokens and overdue notices from the library, all shoved into kitchen drawers—the whole miserable mess that is American family life as it is lived at a certain economic level. These debilitating decisions must be made one at a time, with the organizer instilling certain precepts in the client as they work. The professionals insist, for example, that householders designate a consistent "home" for each of their possessions, so that they don't end up with what Jill Lawrence calls "thirteen hammer syndrome," in which it becomes easier to haul ass down to the hardware store and buy a new hammer every time you need one than to spend a frustrating hour looking for an old one. ("But that's obvious," an acquaintance of mine said in disbelief when I explained this concept to him. "You'd be surprised," I told him.)

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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