On the House | Clutter: It's more than you can store

Posted: September 02, 2007

If folks didn't buy so much useless stuff, it probably would be possible to keep clutter to a minimum with very little effort.

But, no, people continue acquiring things with no concern for storage, and pretty soon the SUV is parked in the driveway because the garage is packed to the rafters with, forgive me, junk.

When we in the newspaper business were introduced to computers in the mid-1970s, it was with the promise that we'd soon be "paperless." Who knew more than 30 years ago that "paperless" would come to mean "newspaper-less," with more and more focus on the Internet and fewer ink-stained hands.

Back when I began my career at the long-defunct Ansonia, Conn., Evening Sentinel on Aug. 30, 1967, there was paper everywhere - tons of newsprint on which the newspaper was printed, as well as reams of it cut from the ends of the rolls into 8-by-111/2-inch sheets on which we typed stories and wrote headlines and photo captions.

The only thing that wasn't paper was the lead type set and locked into page chaises, which I learned to read upside down and backward as a makeup editor.

When they brought the computers in, they promised a paperless world that would give the office a much less cluttered look (it looked like a dump), but the systems they bought were so unreliable that the reporters continued to print copies of everything.

Today, newspaper computer systems are much more reliable, but my colleagues still print a lot of things out. I use white legal pads to take notes in phone interviews; I use a digital tape recorder for in-person interviews, and store e-mail in folders for future reference.

Paper control is a lot more difficult at home. The bulletin board in our kitchen holds class schedules, school forms, party notices, dog-physical appointments, address lists for family and neighbors, and a couple of recipes.

Weekly recycling is a big deal in our house, especially the paper component of it: magazines, newspapers, junk mail, handouts and so on.

Clutter is one reason American houses have become bigger and more expensive. Many builders promise more than enough storage, but they don't completely understand the buying habits of the average American, and new houses are still coming up short.

That's what Builder magazine editorial director Boyce Thompson discovered when he sent teams to interview recent new-home buyers three years ago.

In just about every house, all available surfaces were covered with papers or giant boxes of detergent and cereal from Sam's Club.

And this isn't just an American thing.

When we were in Ireland three years ago, we spent the last two nights at the home of friends while they were vacationing in France.

They asked us if we would mind taking their accumulated newspapers to the recycling center a half-hour drive away. We agreed.

It turned out that there were six months' worth of newspapers that had to go. It took forever. When we got to the recycling center, the bins were overflowing.

What can folks do to conquer the clutter? Be more disciplined, I guess. It's hard to throw stuff away, especially things you bought because you thought you needed them and now hesitate to toss because you might need them again somewhere down the road.

You can always organize things a little better if you can't bring yourself to throw them away. I don't tend to have an attachment to things, but I'd never throw out my sons' major school papers and grade reports. I would cull the collection, though, and file the important ones in boxes and store them in the basement.

I also wouldn't throw good money after bad by purchasing expensive "designer" home-organization products. I recently received a pitch from someone pushing a whole line of these products being promoted by one of those "organization experts" on TV.

Remember, "as seen on TV" contributes to the clutter.

Big time.


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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