View From Lodi, CA: Junk Winning War With Joe
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I extend heartfelt thanks to the dozens of readers who responded with encouragement last April after I confessed in my column titled "Help! Joe A Prisoner of Paper"  that, on occasion, the chaos around me renders me unable to function.

Many wrote to remind me that I am not alone in my struggle. In comforting gestures, readers candidly shared their own tales. And some told me how they persevered and ultimately triumphed over clutter.

Here is a sampling from my mail:

  • "Focus on paper. Anything with print on it must not be more than two days old."

  • "You are not disorganized if you can find what you are looking for within 24 hours. If you can't find it in a day, stop looking. Reclassify the item as 'temporarily misplaced.'"

  • "You don't have to throw anything away. Just buy more stuff to stuff your stuff into. Be creative. Use picnic baskets and colorful cartons."

  • "Don't worry about what your car trunk or garage looks like. Dedicate a portion of each day to organizing a small section of your house. Never miss a day."

Revitalized by the compassionate outpouring, I vowed that during the summer of 2004 I would finally tidy up my home so that I could live like a normal human being.

I had from May 30-July 27th to fulfill my pledge.

Although I realized that I had made this identical promise semi-annually—Christmas and summer vacations—for the last twenty years, 2004 would be the year that I would do it!

But the sad truth is that I failed—again. And the reluctant conclusion that I have reached is that when I am at home full-time and could actually work on clutter-reduction, my constant presence means that more mess will accumulate.

Simply stated, more piles spring up in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend at home.

Baffled and irritated by my inability to overcome the curse of sloth, I embarked on serious research to get to the core of the problem.


I came upon a New York Times article titled "Forget Oscar and Felix: Messiness is No Laughing Matter," by the learned Richard A. Friedman, M.D.

Dr. Friedman's essay began with a historical overview of how some of his colleagues view messiness:

  • A moral failing

  • A hallmark of laziness

  • A serious character flaw

Friedman's basic premise is that what truly distinguishes man from beast is that only humans have the capacity to make a mess. Even pigs and dogs, Friedman points out, keep tidy dens.

Messiness in real life is not an Oscar and Felix comedy. To the contrary, states Friedman:

"It is no laughing matter. It is an endless source of frustration to parents or those whose partners are, to put it kindly, organizationally challenged, to say nothing of the struggles of some messy people themselves."

While experts debate among themselves about what messiness may mean, Dr. Friedman is clear on several points.

According to Friedman,

"What is not speculative is that messiness can sometimes be a symptom of serious psychiatric illness. For example, some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who are beset by unwanted and unpleasant repetitive thoughts and ritualistic compulsions like washing and cleaning, can't stop themselves from hoarding."

Dr. Friedman added more bad news:

"Surprisingly, messiness can strike later in life, even in people who have lived as paragons of order. And when this happens it is often an ominous sign."

I was unprepared for Dr. Friedman's stark analysis.

"Serious psychiatric illness…obsessive-compulsive disorder…ritualistic compulsions…ominous…"

I had no idea I was so far gone!

Perhaps I am hopeless. What other conclusion can be drawn from what I will call "The Tale of a Single Orange"?

For at least a week I have been stepping over an orange on my staircase. I could put it in the refrigerator. But I'm afraid once I move it, I'll never know where it went. The last place I would search for produce is the refrigerator.

Right now, I am confident that when I need that orange, it will be waiting for me on the stairs. I won't lose any time hunting for it.

And, truth be told, I've grown accustomed to the orange on my stairs. I like the splash of color it adds to the beige carpet.

I'm envisioning a rainbow of colors adorning my staircase—not only oranges but also limes, lemons and even grapefruits.

That's my new strategy: messiness as décor.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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