Monday, August 22, 2011

Life Gets in the Way

Week Two of the 1,000-Pound Project has been a frustrating return to reality--the reality of too much to do and not enough time to do it in. My husband, who volunteers with our local AYSO region, had signed us up as a backup host family for one of the UK trainers who come in to do a one-week camp. He did warn me a day or so before the start of the week that they were still looking for other host families, so it seemed possible-to-likely that we would end up hosting someone. On Sunday, only a few hours before the trainers were due to arrive in the area, we got the official word that we would be housing one of them.

I can't share my exact response to this news, but I can say that yes, it was a four-letter word, and no, I would not care to hear any of my children repeat it. As a result of my efforts in Week One, various piles of debris remained on the floor in the living room, the front hall, and the hallway to the bedrooms. The boys' rooms looked like they always do when I'm too distracted to keep after the boys to clean up after themselves--like the aftermath of a moderate earthquake. Some quick work was in order.

As you can imagine, those piles of debris I had been working on sorting out went right back into bags and bins. There wasn't a chance that I was going to be able to finishing sorting it out, given that I had to quickly clean up Son #1's room (where we intended our guest to stay) and the boys' bathroom. My husband enlisted the three boys to clear enough room in the other bedroom for us to put down an air mattress for Son #1 to sleep on between his brothers' beds. As for the rest of the house--well, I figured that our guest just might consider the accommodations worth what he paid for them, but would probably be too polite to say so.

That was just the start of the week. The rest of the week included going into school to meet the new principal (I volunteer at our kids' school so much that this summer a little girl approached me at the boys' summer camp and asked me if I worked at the school--not a good sign), taking Son #3 to two swim lessons (makeup and regular), taking Son #1 to his social skills group, tracking down a patch for a hole in the air mattress (we think one of the cats punctured it), taking the older boys back and forth to soccer camp at the park, cooking, cleaning, laundry, more cooking, more cleaning, more laundry. I think the reason I hate housework so much is that it doesn't STAY done. I've done laundry almost every day this week and yet the hampers look just as full as they did at the start of the week.

So Week Two was a definite step backwards. I'm hoping that before Week Three is over I will be able to take the row of bags and boxes that are lined up in the hall to my bedroom to Goodwill and feel like I am making some progress again.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Week One Wrap-Up

The 1,000-Pound Project is one week old, and I have gotten rid of 67.8 pounds of stuff so far, broken down as follows:

30.6 pounds of proofs from old freelance projects
4.2 pounds of old clothing (thrown out--not suitable for donation)
9 pounds of old papers
9 pounds of trash from garage bins, laundry room, and master bathroom
2.8 pounds of recycling
5.2 pounds of old gift bags
7 pounds of old gift boxes

I had hoped to make a trip to Goodwill on Sunday, to dispose of several bags of clothes that are worth passing along to someone else, but life, as it frequently does, got in the way. They may help to keep this week's total where it should be, because as of tomorrow my extra time will be absorbed by new freelance work coming in.

On the plus side, I did get Son #3's baby shoes sent off to be bronzed (it has gotten a lot more expensive since I had Son #2's own damn fault for procrastinating), and I can actually see the floor of my closet for the first time in a year or so. Even better, I am taking a ruthless approach to the various items I have saved over the years. Yes, it is nice to save gift boxes and gift bags to reuse, but not every single one. My recycling bin was nice and full and my closet much less so. Here's hoping I can keep my resolve over the coming weeks...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Intermittent Positive Reinforcement Is Not My Friend

You may remember from Psych 101 the various kinds of reinforcement that can be used to influence behavior. What has always stuck with me is the explanation of the most effective kind—intermittent positive reinforcement. For example, if the rat in the box gets a food pellet every time it presses a lever, it quickly unlearns that behavior when a lever press does not produce a pellet. However, if you mix things up a bit so that a few lever presses produce nothing, then on the next one out pops a food pellet, that rat will keep on pressing that lever. It is never sure when the effort will pay off, so it keeps on trying. This helps to explain why people keep playing the lottery when they have a better chance of growing wings and flying to the moon than of winning. After all, people do win—just not very often.

This principle is one of the reasons I have such a hard time getting rid of stuff. There have been a few times—not many, but enough to keep me guessing—where some item I have put in storage turns out to be exactly the right thing to have at the right time. The most recent example was a total fluke, reinforcing a couple of types of behavior I should be avoiding.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine called me because her neighbor was having a yard sale that included a large amount of craft items. Knowing that I sew and knit and whatnot, she urged me to come over and take a look. I did, despite the fact that I had more than enough craft materials at home already. I ended up purchasing a random assortment of items, including a basket full of a large number of rather ugly plastic buttons, which I rationalized that someday I could use for a craft project. This collection promptly went into storage, unused.

This spring, I ended up helping out with costuming for my oldest son’s class in the school’s musical revue performance. They needed something vaguely military-looking for their rendition of “Rhythm Nation.” I pulled those self-same ugly buttons out of storage in one of the infamous garage boxes, and discovered that I had 68 of the largest size, and another 68 of the next smaller size—enough to embellish 34 hats and 68 epaulets, once I spray-painted them gold to simulate brass buttons. So that barely-justifiable impulse garage sale buy, coupled with the barely-justifiable long-term storage, ended up being pretty good decisions in the end.

So where to draw the line? That particular acquisition turned out well, but I’m sure not everything I save will turn out to have a purpose that simply isn’t clear to me in the moment.

To offer an example on the flip side, I know the original box from the sewing machine is out in the garage somewhere. My tendency to save the original packaging from large items like that (heavy, awkward to pack, and delicate) is a legacy of my military-brat childhood; when you know you’re moving every two years, you might as well hold on to the box so you can pack those items up again safely for the next move. However, my last move was a decade ago, into this house, and the sewing machine itself is older than my marriage. Unlike the days when I first got the machine (a gift from my parents, and more expensive then my rent at the time), I could probably buy myself a new machine if something happened to this one. Furthermore, if there ever is a next move, it will likely be local, so if I’m that worried about the safety of my sewing machine, I can always load it into the car and drive it to our next home rather than trusting it to the moving company.

So that box is finally going to go...when I can find it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Highs, Lows, and Humility Lessons

Yesterday my husband came home from work to find me sitting on the floor with the contents of three garage boxes in piles around me. After I displayed the various sections—kids’ clothes to be given away, a box of recycling, bags of trash—he suspiciously asked, “Are you pregnant?”

Nesting-like behavior notwithstanding, I am not. (Three kids is more than enough crazy for me.) It’s just that having experienced some early success with the 1,000-Pound Project, I am eager for more. And my sorting had unexpected dividends.

The organizational chaos in my house has frequently meant that things go missing. As I emptied out boxes and bags yesterday, I found three such missing things:

Found item #1: Years ago I bought the boys a Hanukkah Fisher Price set through a catalog. I only put it out for the holidays (mostly because I didn’t want to lose all the pieces among the other Little People sets they had, but also because the main piece plays Hanukkah music when you press down on the menorah and it gets kind of annoying after the fiftieth time or so). Two pieces of this set went missing two Hanukkahs ago. Found them in a bag of junk on the upper laundry room shelf.

Found item #2: A critical piece of our garment steamer—the cap to the water reservoir—went missing some time ago. I searched repeatedly for it and came up empty every time. I seriously considered throwing out the steamer since it was not functional without this piece. Found it in a bag inside a box in the garage. 

Found item #3: Son #3’s first pair of shoes. This was the biggie. Earlier this year we moved Son #3 out of the smallest bedroom and into the big bedroom, which he and Son #2 now share, so that Son #1 could have his own bedroom. (He is eleven and practicing to be a teenager.) At this point I realized that I had no idea where Son #3’s first pair of shoes had gone. This was a huge problem of my own making.

I say of my own making because I had both Son #1 and Son #2’s first shoes bronzed. It is hoky, yes, and one of those ridiculously sentimental things that makes my husband roll his eyes at me, but I did it anyway. To have to tell Son #3 that his shoes were not up there gathering dust on the bookcase with his brothers’ because I LOST them was not a conversation I was looking forward to having. It is bad enough that we have roughly five squintillion more pictures of Son #1 than we do of Son #3, or that almost everything he wears is a hand-me-down. I could envision him in middle age pouring out the whole sorry story to some therapist.

You can imagine my relief when I found those self-same shoes, all scuffed in the toes because he still preferred crawling to walking when we got them for him, buried in the bottom of the second box of outgrown clothes I sorted last night. My goal for today is to find the information to send them off for bronzing before I lose them again.

So those were the highs. The lows and the humility lesson part go hand in hand. I threw out half the contents of the bag of junk Found item #1 was located in without hesitating—so why on earth has it been sitting on a shelf for so long? How embarrassing to think that garment steamer would have ended up in the landfill for no reason other than my disorganization. And clearly we’ve reached the point where non-important stuff is overwhelming my ability to keep track of things that are important, if I spent half the year anxious about the location of those darn baby shoes. Finally, despite having emptied two boxes of old kids’ clothes, I have stacks of other boxes to tackle in the garage. What they represent is a lot of putting off until tomorrow what I should have dealt with in the moment. I may be fighting back, but so far the stuff is still winning.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Time to Jump In

I have often thought, over the last couple of years, of starting a blog. (Because really, what the world needs is another blog.) That notion has, until now, ended up on the list of endlessly postponed “it would be nice to do” things. That day when I would inaugurate my blog with a carefully crafted wise and witty post, I have recently realized, is never going to come. So I am going to do the literary equivalent of a cannonball into the pool and just get started already.

So here goes: my reason for starting now, and the focus of this first post, is going to be the challenge I posed to myself two days ago. I live in a three-bedroom house with my husband, our three boys, four cats, two fish, and a whole lot of stuff. The bigger the boys get and the longer we live here, the more stuff we seem to have. I have been making fitful attempts at cleaning out and organizing almost since we moved in, and none of them seem to make any lasting difference against the rising tide of material goods.

Earlier this summer a friend of mine proposed that we mutually work on organizational challenges to motivate us. Her suggestion was that we start by getting all unnecessary things off the floor. I have to say that I failed miserably at this. Part of that was because as soon as she proposed the idea I got a fresh wave of freelance work that sucked up all my spare time. The other part, I realized, was because there is so much unneeded junk in my house that its position hardly matters. I have to take a step back and start by getting rid of things.

So my first task is what I call the 1,000-Pound Project. The goal is to get rid of 1,000 pounds of unneeded stuff over the next 20 weeks—keeping it to a manageable 50 pounds per week. I’ve set a few rules for myself to keep me honest:

1. It doesn’t count until it leaves the house.
Sticking it in the garage doesn’t count. My garage is full of stuff that is ostensibly out of the house but is still part of the “stuff” nightmare—old papers, old clothes, old toys that we crammed in boxes rather than dealing with at that moment. Instead of a spot to park my car I have ranks of boxes full of junk. So this rule is very important—until the item I am getting rid of actually goes in the trash or recycling or gets donated to charity, it doesn’t count toward the total.

2. Things that are regularly dumped out don’t count.
The point of this exercise is not to give myself a pat on the back for good habits I’ve already developed, like recycling the junk mail and the odd copy of the Watchtower that the local Jehovah’s Witnesses drop off the second it comes through the mail slot. Ordinary trash and recycling don’t count. Now, the stack of papers I discover in that box that hasn’t been opened in two years—that counts. That box is sucking up room in my bedroom or garage, and getting rid of it (and its kin) ARE the point of this exercise.

3. Things that have been taking up space without serving a purpose do count.
This category is intentionally kind of broad. Not everything that I have stored for months, sadly, had a purpose at one time. There have been weeks where life got completely crazy and the stack of papers from the dining room table got swept into a bag and stuck in a corner of my bedroom in a faux-cleaning run when I was trying to make the house presentable for company. Nothing is quite as humiliating as discovering that the dust-covered paper bag that has been taking up space in the corner contains nothing more important than a couple of credit card offers, expired grocery coupons, a months’-old newspaper, and an old school flyer for a workshop you never intended to go to anyway. So whether it is clothes the kids have outgrown, toys they no longer play with, books we no longer read, old cable bills from our apartment in Berkeley, or whatever, if it has been taking up space when it no longer serves a purpose in this house, it is on the hit list.

What do I expect to find in what I hope will be a ruthless campaign to get rid of things we no longer need? I can tell you what I’ve already found, in the two days since I started weeding stuff out:
  •        Clothes I haven’t worn since the Clinton administration
  •        PTA papers pertaining to fundraising campaigns conducted four years ago, which nobody (including me) has looked at in over three
  •        Backup copies of freelance work I completed over a year ago
  •      Empty boxes for cell phones we no longer own

And this was all in my bedroom.

Why 1,000 pounds? I don’t know. I can tell you that I’ve already surpassed my 50-pound goal for this week (paper weighs a lot!), so I wanted to set the goal high enough that I still have work to do after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Maybe it won’t be high enough. I’ll just have to see.

Why 20 weeks? I have to keep the task to a size where I can fit it into life as I know it. The school year is about to start again, and with it soccer season, which means volunteer work, and homework, and practices, and games, and back-to-school nights, and fundraising. Throw in the high holy days, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, and the time between the first day of school and New Year’s starts to feel like a treadmill set a notch or two too high. I hope that 50 pounds a week will still be a manageable amount with all that going on. (I am going to allow myself to average, however, so that extra progress in one week will help make up for weeks when I may make none at all.)

So if this is all about stuff—too much of it and the need to purge—then why is the blog called “Finding the Eye of the Storm”? It’s because I believe that the ballooning amount of stuff is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. An overabundance of stuff can be remedied with some time and energy, which are two things I don’t have an overabundance of. So how did I get to this point where I feel that my life has two modes: busy and busier? How do I turn that treadmill off occasionally so that I can catch my breath? If I thought I was the only person who felt this way, I’d chalk it all up to poor time management or my notorious inability to say no to volunteer work, but since I’ve just spent a summer with my friends commiserating over the deeply crispy burnout cases we’ve all become, I don’t think that’s it. So the title of the blog reflects what is currently on my mind—how to find some momentary calm in the middle of the craziness that is my life. (I mean, seriously, I have three boys—things aren’t going to be very quiet around here for me until about 2024, unless I go deaf first.)

And why now? So I’ll be too embarrassed to quit the 1,000-Pound Project, of course!