Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Housekeeping-Final Exam

Photo courtesy Flickr

At a recent funeral, I overheard one near-elder say to another, “I’ll clean the attic after I retire.” Her companion agreed that working full time leaves no resources left for organizing.

That’s a pity, because working against a physical overload taxes energies when they’re already taxed to the maximum. It’s like running a footrace with a ninety pound pack. I’m hearing more, and more serious, such stories than I care to these days. At the same gathering, I overheard a group of children worrying that their disabled parents will never move because their pa is hovering protectively over his antiques. The children are out of patience. One of them despairingly talked about filling a truck and taking it to a thrift, and a couple of others agreed.

The worlds of psychology and organizing have thoroughly and skillfully pathologized hoarding, but there’s hoarding and then there’s hoarding. My true heroes of World War Two are the Russian seed bank custodians who chose to starve to death rather than eat their stock. They were found fallen and frozen over the sacks they were guarding at such cost.

Later in the day I discussed antiquities with the same children who perked up when I explained that artifacts are reservoirs of information and important expressions of the human spirit. Some expressions are more valuable than others, and the market tends to make that value obvious. The kids had been talking about the recent trove of African artifacts that had been donated to a national thrift chain.  Sometimes it’s less costly to give something away than go through the various hoops involved in de-accessing it by way of sale or trade. This is the second time in three months that I’ve discussed a significant collection that is at risk. The other collection includes a Mayflower cradle, for which I tremble.

I’m more interested in producing, such as I’m able, than in collecting, but my partner designs a small museum now and then or a repository of cultural artifacts. In a minor way he knows the issues of managing stuff with an eye to preserving it for the future. It took me forever to connect with, and to respect, painter Mark Tobey’s advisory that the frame is seventy percent of the picture. The frame is what links the work to the living environment it will inhabit. Storage gear is what connects the work and its housing.

It’s not hard to set up a collection so that it does not deteriorate on the owner’s watch (unless textiles are your passion, in which case, I can’t advise about climate and humidity control). Household antiques thrive in the same conditions that keep their owners happy and healthy. Store things that are not on display suitably padded in lidded plastic bins on knock-down wire shelving units on heavy rolling castors. The wheels will cost nearly as much as the racks themselves, will pay for themselves in ease of handling and efficient use of space, and will have resale value. Find the racks at a big box hardware chain or storage specialty chain. I have found the standard 36” x 18” x 72” units to be the best value and the most versatile. If I were starting over, I’d get all chrome. Buy the standard metropolitan label.

Looking back over the many domiciles I have lived in, I can’t think of one that didn’t have an uninspiring room or large closet that could not have been stocked with the rolling racks and used as a repository. One can screen the back and sides of a rack and use it as a rolling room divider. Set heavy bins on the bottom shelf for seismic stability. Defining dedicated storage space for small artifacts on each floor of the house greatly simplifies maintenance and transforms the rest of the building into flexible units that can be reconfigured in minutes rather than hours. One can use and display the necessary daily minimum and otherwise enjoy the visual riches of digital communications. I ignore built-in storage cupboards and closets because they don’t hold bins conveniently. Built-in storage holds food, other staples, and small or knock-down pieces of furniture not in active use. Built-in storage is not efficient for most of my purposes.

Caring for a collection is caring for the collector. The owner gets to decide the value of the inventory. This is true even for a child’s belongings. A canny owner will consider the market, among other factors, as many children do. A canny photographer advised me to sell part of my minor collection to pay for framing and housing the rest. Family history, sentiment, a sense of continuity, and the very green Shaker notion of using what one already owns are not trivial considerations. Don Aslett’s Clutter’s Last Stand and the British National Trust Manual of Housekeeping address the inventory poles of hoarding and archival maintenance of national treasures. Sometimes both factors are present under the same roof.

For my friends who are waiting for retirement to give them the time to comb the knots out of their inventory, I say find the time. Finding the time will give you more time than you can possibly imagine. Prepare for a long holiday week-end by visualizing your space as it will be, lay in a huge sheaf of varied press-on stationer’s labels and several bold markers, cases of transparent garbage bags (to prevent tragic errors), and four or five times as many lidded bins as you think you’ll need. Add a lavish excess of archival packing material, like bubble wrap for ceramics and acid-free tissue for things that will be sensitive to humidity, like wood. 

In effect, you will be setting up a small museum. Making the decisions is the hard part, so enlist numerous trusted helpers to do the sorting, lifting, carrying,  transporting, and ordering of pizza. Another trusted helper can dust and vacuum the space that is cleared by the sort. The residue will be impressive, so use a HEPA air filter if you have one, or set fresh, inexpensive HEPA filters in the forced air furnace and vacuum cleaner. Keeping the air clean protects cognition. Designate one part of your property for piles of discards, recycling, and donations. Set out labelled rows of up for grabs heirlooms for family and friends (this can be done on the internet) and stockpile Priority Mail shipping cartons. When you decide how to dispose of an object, write the decision on a label so you don’t have to make the decision a second time. Piles of clutter are living proof that making the decision is the real work of ownership.

I find it convenient to slap a green dot (for “go”) on anything that’s destined to leave. Frequently the troublesome contents of a room evaporate as junk mail, old magazines, and chemically ill books (sniff an open one-you’ll know what I’m talking about) are routed to their destinations. Shred anything with your name on it. Aslett is a good coach for this stage of a sort. Protect your helpers’ backs by supporting an empty plastic bag in a bin or carton, and set up a packing station on a sturdy table large enough to hold padding materials.

Fascinatingly, the funeral’s deceased and the man whose children are worried about him share the same values and priorities as a revered elder of a regional tribe, who died nearly a year ago. Margaret had rescued the culture of the tribe from the brink of extinction. Over many years, she assembled a hoard of treasures. A year after her death, they are to be distributed in celebration of the tribe’s tradition of generosity, to maintain the family’s status, and to assert the traditional values of the group. Family’s family.


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