Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mess management

The war on mess has taken a distinct ideological turn. In this New York Times article, "Saying yes to mess," those who can't deal with the mess fight back and now suggest that mess is good [HT: Kookaburra].
An anti-anticlutter movement is afoot, one that says yes to mess and urges you to embrace your disorder. Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds (who reap higher salaries than those with neat “office landscapes”) and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. It’s a movement that confirms what you have known, deep down, all along: really neat people are not avatars of the good life; they are humorless and inflexible prigs, and have way too much time on their hands.
Now I am happy to accept that there are lots of points of view but let's face it this is looking like extremist propaganda. It simply can't be true that a free for all on mess would be a good thing. However, it does help us focus on the question: what is the optimal amount of mess?

I am going to try and answer this question with particular references to households with children. This is not only because children have their own "values" on the subject but also because parents make considerable attempts to mould those values. Moreover, like many issues, it is the existence of children that forces many adults to consider their values on this subject closely and in some cases form a view on mess. Occasionally this comes from deciding to live with someone but it is children that can push the issue further. This is especially the case that some mess (say, small objects) can be potentially fatal to small children.

In terms of the optimal mess question, there are some households where the optimal amount of mess is zero. I have seen these houses. It appears that they are clutter-free all of the time. Their children are clutter-free too. They sit and read books and such. They look sterile and usually have expressions to match. It is quite a picture.

I'll call these folks 'up-wingers.' The reason is that they like to put everything away, up in closets and roofs but most significantly off the ground.

To be truthful, there is a part of me that looks at up-wing households and thinks, wouldn't that be nice. But then the most of me perks up and thinks, not if it took any effort. So I guess, for us, that isn't the practical optimum and I am happy to add to my unwillingness to expend effort getting there an ideological rationale of the restrictive weight placed on children in that clutter-free life.

So let's go to the other extreme as exemplified by this view:

Irwin Kula is a rabbi based in Manhattan and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which was published by Hyperion in September. “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he said the other day. “It’s a flippant remark, but if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never had a home-cooked meal. Real life is very messy, but we need to have models about how that messiness works.”

His favorite example? His 15-year-old daughter Talia’s bedroom, a picture of utter disorder — and individuality, he said.

“One day I’m standing in front of the door,” he said, “and it’s out of control and my wife, Dana, is freaking out, and suddenly I see in all the piles the dress she wore to her first dance and an earring she wore to her bat mitzvah. She’s so trusting her journal is wide open on the floor, and there are photo-booth pictures of her friends strewn everywhere. I said, ‘Omigod, her cup overflows!’ And we started to laugh.”

The room was an invitation, he said, to search for a deeper meaning under the scurf.

"Deeper meaning" my foot! It is only deeper because the floor has been raised by successive layers of mess. These are radical 'down-wingers.' Everything is down on the floor, on desks and on bench-tops.

We are not in this category. Indeed, I have a simple test as to whether your optimal amount of mess is less than this extreme. When you witnessed the events of 911, apart from everything else, did it ever occur to you "what a mess! How are they ever going to clean this up?" And I don't mean the problem of terrorism but literally the physical mess it created right there at Ground Zero. If you had that thought in the first day, you are not a mess extremist but a moderate; at least ideologically.

So where does our household lie? We have definite up-wing leanings but not in an extreme way. But we do have intra-household differences. My spouse is a short-term upist while I am more long-term.

It is all a question of variability. There is a fluctuating amount of mess in a household and the issue is what the periodicity of the mess is. My particular values on this are reflected in my office desk. That desk starts perfectly clutter-free and slowly accumulates paper until it reaches about half a metre. I then spend a day (every three months or so) excavating. Excavating is the right word as I uncover layers of work that was done or worse should have been done. The lower down, the farther into the past it was created. You could literally measure time the way geologists do.

This means that I am happy to tolerate a longer period of mess than my spouse. A week or so will be OK for me. For my spouse, she likes to close off mess for the day. That means a mess free house to wake up to in the morning.

But there is another difference between us. She prefers to deal with mess as a constant war, with constant effort and vigilance. Not me. I prefer to look for structural solutions. Can we spend some money on something that will alleviate a mess issue for good?

A good example of this is what happened to the "pile of death" in our household. The pile of death was created and maintained by my spouse. It is where all of the correspondence and paper we get and potentially have to deal with goes. Birthday invites, catalogues, some bills and lots of other stuff goes there. It accumulates as a single pile on a desk near out kitchen. It is known by all that if something gets put in the "pile of death" it is never seen again. Our children look at us putting an invitation into that pile and scream "nooo!, not there!" They know that it is doomed.

The problem with the pile of death is that it is unstable. So as it reaches its height, it eventually falls. We then realise that nothing in the resulting mess is useful any more and the entire pile is thrown out.

To eventually resolve this cycle, I invested in a set of small drawers (thank you, Howard's Storage World). These drawers would house three categories of the pile of death: (a) current action; (b) on hold; and (c) the rest. This would enable some sorting and also the hope of finding something we think might be there and relevant but looking draws (a) and (b). Gone was the mess and the clutter. And action was taken when a drawer filled. The kids have named these affectionately, the "drawers of death."

My point is that the investment allowed us to deal with the mess itself and minimise effort and fuss. This, to me, is the only way to deal with 'structural' as opposed to 'frictional' mess.

So there is a trade-off in mess management. Frictional solutions that involve day-to-day mess management and structural solutions that try to prolong mess periodicity. But how do you measure the degree of structural mess (as opposed to daily frictional mess)?

My metric is: time to clean up. How long would it take you do get the clutter away? In some situations, it is infinite. There is no way in your household to get all of the clutter away and out of sight. In other situations, you can do it, but this is no guarantee that it can be done usefully. So there is a sense in which the benchmark state of no mess has shades of variation too. But in some households, they can be clutter free in ten minutes.

It is to this standard that we try and hold our children. This means that (i) there are restrictions on the total quantum of permissible mess and (ii) that there are various means of dealing with putting stuff away. The latter comprises boxes and other solutions from Howard's Storage World and IKEA. Our son has embraced these. His was cupboards of toys in boxes; neatly sorted. He can clean is room in 10 minutes even if every single toy is out.

Our daughter despite solutions being offered cannot manage her mess this way. She has too much stuff. So she makes sure she keeps the quantum down.

But even this is not enough. Children accumulate mess potential at an arithmetic rate. This means that we have to do a yearly cull. Get rid of all the stuff they have grown out of, don't use or don't care about. For our son, he is quite cooperative and objectively handles this situation with a ranking of stuff to go. For my 8 year old daughter there is no such thing as stuff she doesn't potentially need and she has a case for each.

"What's this?"

"It is the lid from a Smiggle pen"

"Why do you need it?"

"In case I find the pen."

"Didn't we throw out the pen last year because it had no lid?"

"No, that was another pen. I can also use the lid as a small cup."
And it goes on, for item after item. Suffice it to say, this is why she always has potential mess that takes continual management.

Anyhow, as I write this, we are on holiday and mess management and the potential for loss takes this all to another level. On holiday, the issue is containment. You care less about mess from the mess point of view (it is not your house) but you have to worry about losing things. That means that strict rules need to be enforced. It is that constant stress that got me thinking about mess management issues in general.

My thoughts on this have become a little clearer as I write this post but are still somewhat cluttered. But there is a makings of a macro-mess framework here that can hopefully be developed further. Another time perhaps. Now, I need to clean up the room (again).