Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Boxes: The Bad Room

In the previous installment, I described my multi-decade ordeal of accumulating and hauling a slew of cardboard boxes from apartment to apartment:
They grow as I go, and I'm pitifully unable to organize them. Or go near them. I've tried a few times over the years, and it went poorly, and I've blanked it out. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Bad boxes.
The Boxes had become my Achilles albatross, the embodiment of all failure. So when I was looking for something to work on during this bizarre lockdown - something that would, years from now, make me say "In retrospect, I'm grateful it gave me the opportunity!" - I realized it was time. So I dug in.

I dumped the first Box on my living room floor, and long-repressed issues flooded back. Most obviously: previous efforts had winnowed the chaff...multiple times. No pizza boxes, tissue paper, or non-working cheap pens remained. No obvious toss-outs. Obama used to say that easy problems never make it to a president's desk. Similarly, nothing easily discardable can be found in these Boxes. Every last item has, at some point, enticed me enough to be evaluated, and - very much against my own interest - wind up back in a Box.

None of it is quite enticing enough to be yanked into the center lane of my life, either. No stock certificates or quality screwdriver sets. This is a super-distilled syrup of things I can neither use nor discard, as dense as neutron stars.

But I persevered, working through it very calmly, without agitation or time awareness. We're on lockdown, after all. I've never knit, but I adopted a knitter's mindset of affably relaxed repetition. Tunnel-visioned away from the greater titanic burden of the Box Totality, I zeroed in on the items before me.

Over the years, I'd felt haunted by the prospect of handling every last scrap of note paper, every photo and love letter and business card. But that's just what I did. Knit one, purl two. I did, however, avoid launching into full-scale reveries. I declined to lean back and read all the letters and ancient takeout menus and appointment books. I gave each item respectful consideration, setting aside things requiring further thought or action, and moved on.

Whenever possible, I shot a photo and threw out the original. For example, this NY Press article by Caroline Knapp (a terrific writer who was under-radar at the time and later had a hit book called "Drinking: A Love Story"), which I'd been procrastinating reading for 30 years. The yellowing original is gone, and I have a tidy PDF (first link, above). God bless tech.

The long lonely silence of lockdown fostered this deliberate, patient approach. In the past, I'd felt anxious about giving previous life eras short shrift. But, this time, I wound the wind-up toys and took pleasure briefly scanning my second grade teacher's comments about my autobiography and enjoying my baseball cards as I hunted for valuable ones. I reconnected. This is a key balance: respectful reconnection without endless reveries.

I decided to summarily trash all takeout menus, food clippings and restaurant notes, since they're all over 20 years old. This purge - along with my shoot-and-scrap backup credo, plus a few other trashing mantras which I'll share in a later installment - helped me throw away more than I'd expected.

70% was trashed, 10% positioned to reenter the center lane of my life, and a few things went into an "ebay-or-donate" pile. This left one unspeakable demon pile sizzling with malevolence. A pile I knew well, though I ordinarily won't speak its name.

The dreaded "Geez, Idunno" pile contains items I can't part with yet will never need. My high school yearbook. Chowhound press clippings. 3-D glasses. My blue ribbon winning science fair project. I felt a strong urge to toss it all in a box and throw it into the basement, but that's how I'd gotten into this mess! This is what gives The Boxes their strongly repulsive charge! It hurts to even type this!

I paused for lunch, and returned to a war zone. Piles everywhere. Dust coating everything. Musty smell. And a demonic sizzling pile that was not going back into a Box if I could help it. The most traumatic memory of all suddenly flashed. Such piles, in previous organization attempts, would remain in place, often for years, as I was distracted by life stuff, until my next apartment move, whereupon I'd throw them hastily and miserably into - yeesh - boxes.

The foundations of my horror had all been laid bare:

1. Cleaning is filthiest work of all. The more you clean, the more intolerable your living space becomes. Who sees the actual clean end of it? God? Is that who? Do the angels delight in the scrubbed leading edge of it all while I sit mired in filth?

2. Let's call this Leff's Law of Taxonomy: With any project of categorization, no matter how thoughtfully you preestablish categories for every contingency, you will unavoidably produce a spillover of miscellany - uncategorizable items leaving you ghoulishly rocking and mumbling to yourself.

3. Such "Geez, Idunno" items are a virus. They have an agenda. They want to multiply until they've taken over all mental, emotional, and living space, compelling you to endlessly re-distill them into a diamond-hard state of utter invincibility.

The living room was not the only part of my house annihilated by dust and seething demonic perma-piles. My office, where the computer lives, became strewn with items brought up to research potential ebay listings. Another pile! This is how piles happen - which, in turn, is how Boxes happen. The cycle of pain floods back in a wave of deep nausea: cleaning -> piles -> boxes -> cleaning -> piles -> boxes, ad infinitum. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

But this time, I had an idea.
I'd venture to call it a brilliant idea, but only after observing that there are two routes to brilliance:

1. Actually be brilliant (which is hard, so forget it), or

2. Reversing deep stupidity.

My favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, insists that it's far easier to save 20% of your money via smarter consumption than it is to gain 20% via smarter investment. He notes, correctly, that it's the same 20% gain, regardless. The Brilliance of Reversed Stupidity is the same general idea. It yields the same relative elevation. And that’s what my idea did. There's nothing smart about it, yet it fixed absolutely everything.
Many Boxes live in a small room. They're not all in the basement because I figured that if I stored them all down there I'd never dive in and tame the beast. If they took an entire room hostage, I'd be forced to work through them. So I've been calling this The Bad Room.

I entered The Bad Room, pushed Boxes out of the way, and set up a folding table, a chair, a lamp, an air cleaner, a dust cloth, a dust buster, an old laptop computer plugged into AC, a Box cutter, a sharpie, multi-use labels, and tons of high-quality large-but-not-crazy-large trash bags. And I resolved that the project would happen entirely within this room.

Nothing would leave the room but garbage and packages bound for charity or postal delivery. And while I would inevitably wind up further distilling my clutter by reBoxing certain stuff, at least there'd be a lot less of it. And it would all stay right in this room, so there'd be no house annihilation or creepy frozen perms-piles. As Boxes emptied, I'd bring up more - up from the basement and out of the closets - for processing in The Bad Room. Big chaos would be processed into smaller order. Not a perfect plan, but viable.

I bought 18 gallon tubs - big enough to fit loads of objects but easily hoisted even full of books - and numbered them and created a spreadsheet itemizing their contents. One tub holds stuff to give away, another is for sellables, another holds items requiring examination/action, and a couple are slated for re-Boxing of Geez-Idunnos, which will happen not in frantic panic years hence, but methodically and smartly, with everything photographed and listed in the spreadsheet. No object would be unaccounted for, so everything would be easily accessible going forward. And no piles. And no raggedy cardboard. I'd tame my foggy warren of disconnected crap and actually posses my possessions.

Like a crazy person locked into a padded room until the madness lifts, I strode into the room, threw open the windows, cranked up the air cleaner, and got to work.

New tag/label for the Slog: Organization. Like all tag/labels, it's indexed in the left margin (below the Popular Entries), and calls up all postings thus labeled in reverse-chronological order.

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