Sunday, January 24, 2021

Book Review: Clutter by Jen Howard

 **This book review is from a copy I purchased in print**

Book cover of Clutter by Jen Howard

Clutter, An Untidy History

Jen Howard
Bookshop Link 

Our relationship to things is the topic of last year's short book by Jen Howard: Clutter, an Untidy History. 

Rather than another chiding book telling us what we should own, why we should all strive for minimalism, and the fourteen new ways to be free of things, Howard instead tackles the subject of what got us here, what has influenced historical move towards the acquisition of things -- simultaneously bringing us along for her own experience of cleaning out her mother's home after her death.  

The stark opening, dropping us into the challenges she faced, was familiar. I knew this world of huge overaccumulation which left a house dangerously full. While it never got quite as dangerous as Howard describes, this was very similar to the home of one of my grandmothers. This meant following her death, it took multiple dumpsters and endless donation trips to empty out a large two-story farmhouse with a large basement. One story I remember my mother telling me -- as I was too far away to help -- was of taking multiple carloads of sheets and other bedding, most of it brand new, to a local charity group (with their grateful advance permission).

Howard's history focuses on the United States and the influence primarily from the Industrial Revolution as it played out in Great Britain. She discusses hoarding briefly, but mostly focuses on the consumerism that has played out since the Victorian era, tracing it forward to mail order catalogs and Amazon Prime. She shows the integration of wanting stuff and our methods of shopping and how it aligns with various other trends simultaneously happening -- women as homemaker, the Container Store as our response to really Can We Just Sort It All, excess minimalism as a trend. 

She also examines throughout the book the professionals who are engaged in the world of sorting and reducing things. This includes an engaging portrait of a junk hauler who worked with her to take things away in his truck from her mother's house, a quiet woman sorting through paperwork for her -- to weed out the junk mail from the the treasured documents -- as well as a glimpse into those exhorting us to get rid of things or at least fully organize them, not least of which is Marie Kondo and the consultants who have taken up her program and other professional organizers.

I knew Howard's work and have followed her on Twitter from her time as a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was one of the better writers and I could count on her to accurately represent people she wrote about, rather than relying upon outdated stereotypes of what X category of employee looked like. So I expected going into this that it would be interesting and well-written and I was pleased to have my expectations exceeded. 

This isn't a How-To Book and you will not find an underlying chiding or glorification of one lifestyle over another. Instead this is Howard's call to action mostly for herself. Her readers are encouraged to identify outlying forces pulling on them -- including the simultaneous drive to acquire things delivered in two days to our doors and the trendy minimalism that has sparked any number of YouTube channels.* ** Howard instead recommends better awareness of our acquisitions, whether they be physical or digital, their impact on our lives and our world, and how they might affect others if and when left behind. 

This book, read among a few others about cleaning and getting rid of things last year, felt more like hearing from a friend who was struggling at a similar place that I was. You have things, it's easy to acquire more, you don't want to just re-sort things endlessly but you also aren't trying to get down to two forks and no spare bed linens. 

Two final thoughts

1) This book reminded of this light soprano art song that my high school teacher gave me because I wasn't one of the "serious and accomplished" sopranos.  It's short, make sure you listen to the end to learn the epitaph! 

2) Now that I've read through the book twice, I'm ready for it to move on out of my home -- if you'd like it please let me know and I'll pop it in the mail to you. 

*I tried watching one of those channels briefly to see if I could get some interesting ideas. In the second video, a very thin trendy white woman expounded at length about how "she doesn't buy XYZ"--- by instead getting other people to buy them for her. This was her answer for over half the categories of things she claimed to not spend money on. This was not thrift or minimalism -- it was "Oh, well and then I got my Mom to buy me X." The willful shifting of the financial burden to others in her community was so entitled and obnoxious, I had to give up.  

** Why do minimalists all seem to have the same decorating trends? It's all very modern, all white and metal, clean lines.  Is there something wrong with not wanting an overwhelming amount of stuff and also having a brown bedspread that hides the cat hair bit better? 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Category 5: Jewelry

This marks the first category of things that are use but not necessarily use up.  When contemplating this in December, and writing out the categories of things I wanted to pay attention to and reduce around the house -- I knew there would be things that weren't strictly consumables. But it also requires looking at things and deciding if they still have a place in your life and if so -- well then shouldn't I get them out? So I've been making an effort to start getting out and putting on different pieces of jewelry that I haven't worn in years. It's made a nice change on the endless Zoom calls to see myself with new sparklies on. 

Silver Heart Pendant Necklace on Purple Fun Fur Background

Jewelry is a pretty easy category for many of us to contemplate. You may have received jewelry as gifts, you may have bought jewelry for yourself, and it comes through other portals. A couple of years ago, one of my coworkers brought in a lot of period costume jewelry being cleared out from a relative who had passed away -- did any of us want some of these funky pieces before she sent them off as donations? Of course we did!

And this is not to say that I wouldn't appreciate more jewelry as gifts (in case my other half decides to start reading this blog). Thoughtfully picked out jewelry is so personal and meaningful -- but it's getting buried amongst the H&M earrings that I bought before I moved out of New York 15 years ago.  

Part of the jewelry challenge is time and space - I've never been a morning person so anything that adds to the morning routine has been whittled away as much as possible over time.  Whatever I do it has to be fast and built into the routine that starts with "Get up, feed the cats, turn on the tea kettle..." (Yes, of course the cat feeding happens first.) So the time to choose jewelry is usually in the under-a-minute range which leads to general repetition of the jewelry that is on top, still out, etc. 

The space perspective adds to the morning time challenge. I have two jewelry boxes right now -- one that is a large paper/board box that I got from the Container Store or similar with trays inside. Jewelry there is sorted but also those trays are entirely full.  On top of that sits a wooden jewelry box which contains trays but they are less sorted and therefore much messier. But because it's on top, it's also the jewelry I actually wear.  "Move a box and sort through trays" takes far longer than the "oh, these earrings and ring" that I can easily  default to.  

Then, there's the added reality that getting rid of jewelry is very hard for me, even jewelry I don't wear, even jewelry I don't *like.* Some of it is memories that I have of wearing the jewelry once. Some of it is it was a gift and I am holding the memory of the gift-giver. Some of it is that the jewelry is probably at least worth a little bit and do I go through the process of trying to sell it? (I'm beginning to wonder if I should at least do one month where I set up some Ebay auctions but the idea of that just sounds exhausting.) 

The last box that my mom sent as she continues to clean my stuff out of her house (we both thought we were done, apparently it never ends) included a jewelry box my grandfather made for me as a child.  As a jewelry box it fails-- there's no possible way to sort anything and have it stay put. But it's one of a tiny number of things that he made me and it's a pretty box, so obviously the box isn't leaving. I do need to decide what lives in it though and where it lives. On my home office desk is the short term plan and that's already not working. And the jewelry inside of it sparked a lot of memories -- but almost none of it is jewelry I'll wear again. 

Child's Shell and Pearl Necklace (Costume)

Maybe that's the first solution. Memory jewelry -- in Ziplocs so I don't have to untangle it a 400th time -- goes in the jewelry box from my grandfather with notes about the what and why of the memory. Jewelry that really needs to go -- the mostly cheap or costume pieces can be sorted for donation and the nicer things for a masked walk down to the jewelry store near us. We know them and they have a good reputation for honesty about is this piece from your grad school ex-boyfriend actually worth anything or is it just clutter and let's all move on. 

And then I can maybe get back to wearing those pretty earrings my sister got me for my birthday -- which are long and dangly and *do* show up on camera.  

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Category 4: Nail Polish

Getting started with this project , I knew one of the categories I needed to tackle was nail polish. I went for a manicure right before I left for my last pre-pandemic work trip and I really do miss that. When I lived in New York, I had two regular places I'd go to get my nails done and it was a thing you did every 1-2 weeks. I miss the routine of that. It's harder in Chicago; the closest nail place to me closes by six p.m. and that's not do-able when I don't get off the train until 7.   

My dentist would also like me to go back to that regular nail care routine. Yes, I still chew my nails.  Definitely a stress habit that has been ingrained for decades now. But I discovered  during the regular manicure years that if I spent money on my hands, I kept them out of my mouth. Nicely painted nails meant less chewing, which meant nicer nails next time I went to get them painted, etc. etc. ( I mention my dentist in particular as nail chewing is hard on your front teeth -- especially when those front teeth have had damage from other causes like toddler's heads.) 

Three bottles of nail polish -- two clear, one color
Of course, between the chewing and the manicures, I'm also not particularly good at cutting my own nails, which usually leads to nails getting long and then breaking and once one nail breaks, do you cut the others or do you wait and and and....

Also how long does nail polish keep before it goes bad? Or just totally dries out?  I keep nail polish around; one does not wear as much hosiery as I do during normal times without nail polish handy both at home and the office. But I went diving into the drawer to see what I still had and what I could try using. To my great surprise, even though most of the colors had a bit of separation happening a solid shake and things seemed to be mostly okay?  

So I've started painting my nails again and lo and behold, apparently now if I paint my own nails and am mostly at home I can not chew my nails! (The staying at home part helps too -- I'm not caught out somewhere in public with a hangnail or a rough edge and no nail file. I'm going to need a veritable case of emery boards when the world resumes being public.) 

The polishes are varying in how well they are holding up; not a surprise. I've never been a brand loyalist and I'm not delicate with my hands. I wash a lot of dishes, knit, and do myriad other things that would lead to chips and damage to the polish. I could start wearing gloves while washing the dishes or wiping down the bathroom but I won't. I can tolerate the chips to a point and after that I can toss on another coat on that one nail that has chipped or I can replace the polish and try a new color. I have some red polish that is likely not long for the draw -- it flakes off at the touch of a water droplet. 

Probably the most amusing part for me is how little time it takes to do my nails. I have looked at these same polishes before and thought how that will just take forever and I need to do a minimum of four coats and I just don't have time. Now I'm finding that all told it's taking about 15 minutes and I can do plenty of computer stuff while I'm giving each coat a few minutes to dry.  Add another 30-45 minutes where I'm doing more computer things while waiting for full drying -- which isn't hard -- and I'm done.

Now, nail polish doesn't use up quickly, at least not that I've noticed, but I have tossed a couple of bottles that had dried up and I'm re-evaluating the colors I have, so a dent is certainly happening.

Are you pandemic nail painting? Any pedicure tips I should know about? I feel like my toes should be up next for beautification...   

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Category 3: Loose Leaf Tea

A good cup of tea is always welcome at my house and over the years I've acquired a healthy small stash of tea bags and loose leaf tea that come and go. I still get a strange little thrill out of buying an entire box of Bigelow's Raspberry Royale -- which was the favorite from a box of assorted teas as a child -- to be both coveted and hoarded for best but also drunk immediately because otherwise someone else might drink it first.  The small delights of adulthood are sometimes truly the best. 

For my lovely loose leaf teas, I have a couple of silicone tea infusers -- a seahorse and a hedgehog and tea pots. But over time it's taken back seat to coffee as my morning drink when I'm racing out the door. And then, in November, I went to an online tea festival and went off the rails buying tea. I ordered what I thought was a small reasonable amount of samples from a few different tea merchants, only to learn that I really had no idea how much tea was in 1 oz packages.  It started arriving, and arriving, and arriving. 

Tub holding a LOT of packages of loose leaf tea

I've done a tea share with a coworker; I've received a new kettle; I'm making tea almost everyday. And I have quite a lot of tea. It's been fun to try the variants that I ordered and while it seems impossible, I have actually used up a few ounces so far. It's going to be a few months though before I make a significant dent. And at least one of these is going to go to my partner -- it's a lemon ginger and while it's tasty, I think it'd be better iced and he likes a good iced ginger tea. 

It is fun to order from small tea companies though -- Glenburn, tealeaf, The Great Mississippi Tea Company, and Plum Deluxe were all among the orders that arrived on the doorstep.  And I managed to order quite a large variety -- with white, green, and black teas, some floral flavored, others just tea, others will be a very rich Earl Grey. 

In terms of using it up; I don't want these to sit. I'm not the most particular tea connoisseur but I know the tea will go stale or rancid if left too long and there's no need for that. So I'm trying the teas, seeing what I'll actually want to order again after I've finished this giant box, and making notes.  

And if this pandemic ever ends, I can invite a few people over for a cup of tea...