Book review: Stuff

authors Gail Steketee, Randy Frost and "Stuff", plus a level-4 cluttered space

I have a long and complex history of interactions with stuff.

Long enough that it’s hard to pinpoint where the more fraught interactions started, although there are artifacts that suggest certain “hot” times: a bright yellow filing cabinet I requested (and received) for my thirteenth birthday; a dedicated “quotes and lists” journal I created during my junior year of college, after a particularly difficult summer.

Complex enough that just thinking about it brings up a variety of disturbing feelings: shame, guilt, confusion, anxiety. My anxiety is bubbling to the surface right now, as I type this, even after a full year of actively sorting through, thinking about, and releasing stuff. My heart is beating faster. I’m warm, a little dizzy, and feel as though it’s harder to breathe. I feel “fuzzed out”, dissociated, instead of present and fully integrated, like a part of me that didn’t want to deal just ran off somewhere else, and now I have to coax it back.

According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, co-authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, and preeminent scholars of hoarding as a behavioral disorder, my symptoms are fairly common. While I’m not a hoarder, or at least, compared to the hoarders I’ve known and the ones I’ve been (obsessively) watching on A&E’s gripping show, Hoarders, I have significant attachment issues around stuff, and exhibit many of the behaviors and much of the wiring present among compulsive hoarders: perfectionism, distractibility, depression, difficulty making decisions, and, hallelujah for at least one happy trait, a highly creative personality.

Stuff does a superb job of explaining why it is we get attached to things, and why some of us become pathologically attached to things. The authors use a series of case studies to illustrate the various ways the disorder manifests: there are the “opportunity addicts,” who see potential in everything; there are people who use their stuff as visual reminders, who use it to make them feel safe, or valued, or in control. The stories are fascinating and often heartbreaking. But while they describe life at the extreme end of the acquiring spectrum, they’re also fairly illuminating about the general valuation of objects over experiences, even relationships, that are part of a consumer-driven economy and the culture of materialism it fosters.

In other words, while Stuff is of particular interest to someone who is a hoarder, loves a hoarder or is just interested in learning all about hoarding, it’s also a mandatory read for anyone interested understanding more about the fallout from living in this age of unprecedented access to both goods and information. It’s gripping from beginning to end, and haunting thereafter.


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Photos, clockwise from top left: Steketee; Frost; book cover; a level-4 (out of a possible 9) cluttered space.

Moving toward vs. getting rid of

a LOT of ice cream flavors posted on the wallDuring last night’s first meeting of the Big Artist Workshop, gentle genius Chris Wells (hey! he won an Obie!) shared the most useful hack I’ve ever heard of for dealing with one’s art as a focus-challenged person:

Don’t worry about letting go of things; think instead of what you would most like to move toward.

Like most shifts in thinking, it will probably end up being profound because it is so simple. I have trouble letting go of stuff, because the decisions are too painful. So I don’t: I now turn my attention toward the one thing I am moving toward right now. Those other things? Those other ideas for projects and stories and songs and books and demands on my limited attention? We’ll talk about what they’re for later, when we understand it. For now, it’s enough to know that I can safely move toward this one thing.

The class was full of so much goodness, it fairly blew my mind.


Image by olliethebastard via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: Unclutter Your Life in One Week


There are two ways of looking at clutter, and they’re equally important to getting a handle on it.

The first (which for most people ends up being the second) is the under-the-hood way: what’s really going on between you and all that stuff you’ve stockpiled? What holes are you trying to fill, what anxieties soothe, what fears hold at bay? What, in other words, on the inside needs a little thought and attention. This is the kind of root-causes stuff that shrinks use to help facilitate change, the thought being (I think) that for many of us, identifying the root of the thing helps to illuminate the path out. (Or at the very least is that bell in your head that cannot be unrung.)

It’s what I’d call the “inside-out” way: like Method acting, you work on the interior landscape first, which helps you to project the truth of the character on the exterior.

For this kind of examination, I fall firmly in the camp of my friend Brooks Palmer‘s clutterbusting ethos, as outlined in his excellent book and blog*. And there is a beautiful sort of symmetry to a decluttering methodology that is as spare and quiet as an uncluttered room itself.

The other way of looking at clutter, it follows, is an “outside-in” way.** This is the route traditional organizers have taken, before we all started drowning in so much shit that cramming it in ever more tightly-organized compartments became unfeasible.

The new wave of outside-in people definitely nod toward the inside-out folk, in that they recognize a lot of the attachment issues we have with stuff. But they’re chiefly concerned with the mechanics of getting on with it.

For my money, and like most of us, I’m paying closer attention to it these days, Erin Rooley Doland‘s new book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week is an outstanding example of the practicality school of decluttering. By her own admission, Rooney Doland was a wretched clutterer before a desperate plea from her spouse woke her up; since then, she’s worked assiduously to change her ways, and been quite methodical in her examination of useful techniques and the order in which they need to be done.

She’s also really good at documenting and explaining them. Part of that, no doubt, comes from her conversion, but I think she’s just a damned fine writer and thinker, besides. Her blog, Unclutterer, is daily proof of that, as well as of her generous attitude and cheery disposition. (Never underestimate the motivating powers of generosity and cheer when facing a self-made mountain of crap.)

Unclutterer, the blog, abounds with useful advice, and is a nice way to dip your toes in the waters of decluttering before you’re ready to plunge in (and to keep you honest afterwards). Unclutterer, the book offers a detailed map of how to get there from here.

As the title suggests, it covers the decluttering process by breaking it down into days. The weekend counts as one, so there are six chapters devoted to step-by-step stuff, plus one that introduces the basic concepts (“a place for everything and everything in its place” figures prominently in the catechism) and another to prepare you for the aftermath (a.k.a. the rest of your life).

Rooney Doland admits that some of the tasks will take you longer than a day; having looped around this hill a few times, I think most of them would. But there are excellent exercises and ideas, along with detailed charts and checklists, making this one of the most actionable books on any self-help topic, not just decluttering. Some of the more interesting and potentially useful items in the book include:

  • a quiz to determine the way you process information (visual, auditory or kinesthetic), which in turn reveals the best ways for you to order things for peace and sanity in the future
  • an extensive system for re-thinking and reorganizing your paper filing system
  • the most thorough and well-thought-out plan for processing stuff as it comes into your house I’ve ever seen (her “reception station” puts my landing strip to shame)

Having come from a blog, with its ruthless schedule of post post post, probably accounts for the wealth of juicy tips studded here and there throughout the book. There are scads of these little “lightbulb” tips, from creating triggers for certain tasks to a regular event she dubs the Sock Purge, which I am instituting immediately.

No system will work unless you’re willing and ready. Once you are, though, you’ll want to find a guide that really speaks to you. If you’re an outside-in type, or looking for some help that elaborates on the core directives of a Clutterbusting approach, this might well be the book for you.


*First-runner-up prize goes to Peter Walsh, who is the slick and edgy snarkster to Brooks’ sly, gentle charmer. Not a bad thing, and his style has worked remarkably well for some people. Brooks’ methodology was what made the tumblers fall for me, though.

**For those of you into the acting analogy, this is more of what the British school of acting is like. Yes, they care about the underlying emotions, but they spend a great deal more time working on the externals, movement, voice, etc., with the idea that creating the right external parameters informs interior behavior. The female cast of the magnificent Mad Men (an American program!) has said that you absolutely act differently in the trussed-up, high-maintenance clothes of the mid-century middle-class Western woman.

Image by Ssmallfry via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 21: Butlers, books and room for what matters


Depending on your age, location and/or proclivity toward old shit, you may or may not have some experience with the mid-last-century cultural icon, Auntie Mame.

The character, drawn in fiction by author Patrick Dennis from his real-life experiences as ward of his real-life aunt, is a free-wheeling spirit (or maybe a high-spirited free-wheeler) who exhorts her buttoned-up nephew and anyone else in earshot to grab life by the horns and ride the shit out of it. I paraphrase**, but you get the idea.

What I didn’t realize, and I’m a big fan of the film, as was my father before me, was how much Dennis took that message to heart. I dialed up Facebook this morning and found the most interesting post from my friend, the lovely and talented Polly Frost. She described a recent serendipitous walk she’d taken through the streets of New York City with Dennis’s former editor, Peggy Brooks, during which said editrix confided, “You do know he ended up working as a butler for Ray Kroc who didn’t know he wrote Auntie Mame.”

It blew Polly away to think that such a talented writer would just walk away from novel writing to become a butler. A few people on the discussion thread suggested, and really, if you’re not participating in discussions like this, you’re kind of missing the whole point of Facebook, that perhaps Dennis had made the move out of financial necessity, not absolute free will and desire. And it’s possible that money may have played a part: he burned through what must have been a considerable sum generated by the books and the rights (Auntie Mame was also the source material for the Broadway play, starring Rosalind Russell, a Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury and the film versions of both.)

I like to think, though, that he was just done with one thing and ready for another. Having had a recurring fantasy of being the Mailcart Guy for a while, and actually having had the exotic and deeply humbling experience of going from Corner Office Lady to 33-year-old gofer, I get that. It is wildly liberating to shuck off something as big and fancy as a career, especially, perhaps, one that has earned one money and acclaim, and embrace something totally different. Not as an “eff you” move, either, although it does tend to shake up people’s ideas of an ordered universe. It’s about acknowledging that something no longer serves, and releasing it to free yourself up for something that does. Because if it ain’t serving you, it’s clutter.

I ran up against it again with family mementos. Earlier on in the purge, the night of the workshop, in fact, I tracked down and sent an email to one of my father’s old friends, a fine illustrator by the name of Stan Tusan whose work I well and fondly remember from my childhood.*** They had collaborated on a children’s book, apparently, and I found what may be the one copy extant in my Pile O’ Shit that I’m sifting through. While I was fine pitching photos, I could toss 90% and still have more than I could view regularly in a lifetime, it’s much, much harder to throw away a project. I’ve made too many of my own not to get the insane amounts of love and energy, not to mention time, that go into such things.

The email reply stung.

Pitch it, it read, and just about that tersely. I was sure I’d offended somehow, which I generally bend over backwards to not do, as I’m (still…STILL!!!!) so concerned with what people think of me. But pitch it I did, and further down the line, I received more emails from Stan, we’re fine, we’re good, we’re back in friendly touch and neither one of us has to worry about this old thing he made with my dead father. Which, I have to tell you, is probably 100% fine with old Tony Wainwright. The man was sentimental about music and good times and great Spaghetti Westerns, but a keeper of crap he was not. I know: it drove his father, my grandfather, king-god of hoarding against future use, right up the wall of his cluttered-to-the-end study.

Here’s the thing: no one’s right. No one’s wrong. No one can tell me or you or Stan or my grandfather what to keep. (Especially my gramps, unless you’re one of them psychic types.) In the end, though, my grandfather died alone, in a hospital bed, of a broken heart. The most meaningful thing in his life was a person, my extraordinary grandmother, and she’d left the planet several weeks earlier. And her constant refrain, even as she’d hand over some cherished object still warm with her unbelievably beautiful energy? “Sell it!” she’d whisper, gleefully, conspiratorially.

Trade that thing for freedom is what I now realize she meant. Don’t get burdened by your choices; let them liberate you. Let each thing that touches your life enrich you in some way, with joy, with experience, with the understanding born of pain, and let it the fuck go. It is not that thing you want: it is the thing that thing makes you feel.

This is the last day of the clutter-clearing salute. But it is the beginning of a brand new, completely thrilling and not a little bit terrifying chapter of my life.

May it be the same for you, only completely different. And may we both meet up again at some point to share the things we’ve really kept…


*I’ve given up assuming that we all share the same cultural references which means, I think, that I have a shot at becoming a responsible grown-up in the back nine of my life.

**The actual quote I was thinking of is this: “Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” There are quite a few more at IMDb, along with a page for the movie starring Roz Russell. It’s a fab flick, and I recommend you rent it, or check it out from your public library. If you must be acquisitive about it, though, I’d be honored if you’d purchase it via my Amazon affiliate link.

***”My dog has fleas!” I still think of it every time I (try to) whistle. Thanks, Stan!

Image by zoutedrop via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 20: To-don’t lists


When you take a cold, hard look at them, most to-do lists can be boiled down to a few essential items: work on something important and play with someone important.

I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate today, the fifth anniversary of this ungodly-long-winded blog, than doing just those two things.


(Thanks to Miss Dyana Valentine for pointing out that it was, in fact, the fifth anniversary.)

Image by Colleen Wainwright via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 19: Contact clutter


I wiped almost a thousand people from my life today in less than two hours.

To be fair, many of them were ‘bots, duplicates and other sync-rot from Google Contacts and Address Book. But a fair number were people, actual human beings, whom I’ve met along the way, one way or another, and either lost touch with or wanted to lose touch with, but didn’t have the nerve to delete.

Pruning one’s address book or Rolodex back in the hard-copy days could be a melancholy affair. Did you cross out that dead (or dead-to-you) person, or let it ride? Did you pull the little white cards from their metal (or later, plastic) spools, conceding defeat, acknowledging opportunities abandoned and hills not conquered? Or did you leave them in there thinking “Maybe…maybe this year I’ll go back and reconnect with Ken over at Spacely Sprockets?”

Today, it seems easier but really, is it? The select/delete action is so simple, but so brutal. Just like that, these people and the promises those relationships once held are gone forever, again and again and again. Almost 1,000 of them, in less than 120 minutes. For every one that was a relief to let go of (and trust me, the photo exercise from Brooks’ workshop primed me for some serious eradication action), there were 10 that were harder, and one or two that made me downright melancholy. Decluttering photos made me feel lighter; decluttering my address book just made me feel that much closer to death.

Okay, it also made me feel like a loser. When I’d see all the information I’d plugged into some of these entries, contacts that I added to be a friend or opportunity collector more than anything else, I felt like there was a big, red “L” stamped on my forehead. Talk about sunk costs! These entries represented hours and hours of my life I’ll never get back: hours I could have put into making something or reading something or just actually being with someone.

We have versions of The Container Store and IKEA’s excellent storage solution porn aids all around us. It is so much easier to feel virtuous rearranging and categorizing than it is to take a cold, hard look at what we legitimately have at our disposal that is of utility.

I’ll talk more about my criteria for cutting (and keeping) later on, in a screencast showing how I organize my contact management system (if you can call Address Book that without laughing).

In the meantime, may I repeat my mantra of the past almost-three weeks: Let go, let go, let go…


Image by Sreejith K. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 17: Let go


One old sock
one cracked mug
one pair of outgrown pants
one set of unused silver

One full-on ensemble
of antique dining room furnishings
worth their weight
in baby pandas
and the dreams
of dead people

One of anything
now unloved
still here
will weigh you down
will hold you back

Will fill
the space you give it
and slowly kill
what drew you to it
to begin with.


One of anything
once beloved
let go
will let in
an infinite measure
of the love it held
(or that you hoped
it would).

Let go
let go
and let in
what is not quite there
what has yet to be
what is all around you now
but that you cannot see
for want of room
to view it.


Image by Kevin via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.