Let's take if from a generally accepted genius. Simplicity is not simplistic. It's simply, simple. When a toss will do the trick, do you really need a laser targeting system? You're smart enough to know the answer. Don't let complications spoil simple.
You remember the unfortunate Mr. Dumpty. A fall from the wall rendered him broken, and despite best efforts by all the king’s horses and men, broken he would stay. It’s a cautionary tale but the warning is not about the dangers of fragile eggy figures perching on walls. The lesson is about how we deal with things crowded, mangled, and obsolete. As the English would say, Humpty Dumpty had become a dog’s breakfast. We’ll just call him clutter.
It feels a little harsh to call Humpty clutter, but once he cracked, that’s exactly what he was. No longer any good. Just a mess to be cleaned up and disposed of. That he was such a good egg and looked so dapper before his fall makes it even harder to admit that afterwards, he was reduced to clutter. And such is the case with our things. (You knew this wasn’t just a nostalgic bit about Mother Goose.)
Some things are born as clutter, like the oversized sombrero that looked fun in the marketplace but looks less fun as you struggle through security and truly regrettable as you angrily stuff it in the overhead bin. But the path to clutter is typically more gradual. Fully functioning is downgraded to balky. Balky becomes broken. Important parts go missing. Cords vanish. Mated pairs get divorced. Sparks fly when the switch is flipped. It doesn’t take any special training or talent to make the diagnosis: Clutter.
The physical brokenness of the possession in question is usually obvious. Our emotional attachment to the “clutter-in-waiting” is more complicated and harder to admit. The progression from “love” to “disgust” goes something like this. (To help with this staging, I’m thinking of the clutter formerly known as “bread machine”.) Love fades to ambivalence. Ambivalence becomes disregard. Disregard mutates into disgust. And disgust should spell the end of that bit of clutter and in the case of the aforementioned bread machine, it did.
When we use terms like serviceable, all parts together, and good working order to describe our possessions, you can be certain they are not clutter. They are things we need, use, and likely love. They are things for which we have adequate and appropriate storage. They are our valued possessions- the inanimate equivalent of our peeps.
As an antonym for clutter, there are oodles of verbs, but I come up empty-handed on the noun. So maybe an antidote for clutter will suffice. Consider this a refresher on a topic that often needs refreshing. Be as careful about what you let into your home as whom you let in. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Clutter is an intruder, so bar the doors and ignore its insistent knock. As to the intruders who made it in before you improved security? Pack ‘em up and send them packing.
Even Mother Goose knew Humpty was hopelessly scrambled and had to go. And while Ms. Goose is silent on this, I imagine that the king’s horses and men turned things over to the king’s ladies to do the mopping up. Minimize your mopping by confining the dog’s breakfast to the dog’s bowl.
An enormous sign on a busy secondary highway suggested we “make room for life.” Big was probably justified, given the competition for drivers’ attention. Competition was stiff- car dealerships, fast food joints, big box stores, personal injury attorneys and the almost endearing palm reader and psychic advisor crowded the built landscape.
All of which made me think that “making room for life” sounded like a good idea. But the solution being advertised- self- storage- was really a way to make room for clutter.
Storage warehouses are referred to (disparagingly) as “ground cover”, or (gleefully) as “cash cows”. They are cheap to build and operate and return tidy profits quickly. They turn vacant commercial land into a cash machine. And there seems to be no end to demand for them. If you build them, we will store.
Multiple Choice: The number of self-storage facilities in the US compared to the number of McDonald’s restaurants is roughly:
b. One third
The correct answer is C. Turns out something Americans love more than Big Macs is hoarding. Self- storage is a $35 billion a year industry and forecast to grow about 3% for the foreseeable future.
If we’re not careful, the real cows will be out of edible ground cover. Do your part for the bovines. Move over self storage. Make room for life!
As we approach the threshold of the year to come, maybe we should follow in Tennyson's footsteps. Whether you're Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Henny Penny matters not- hopefulness doesn't discriminate. But hope isn't just a matter of idly wishing. It's planning, striving, doing whatever needs doing to make hopes real. This velvety rabbit reminds me of the Velveteen Rabbit who learned a lot about Real from Skin Horse. "Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has fallen off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all. Once you are Real, you can't become unReal."
Real is work. Real is resolve. And Real is just on the other side of the threshold.
Happy and Hopeful New Year. Really.
Know what "features" you don't want (and certainly don't need). Learn to call them by their proper name: Mistakes. Doo-dahs, add-ons, upgrades, extras... watch out!
What in the world does the title of this essay have to do with the picture? And how can this possibly be relevant to the Rules? It might seem I'm way out on a limb, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is about as close to the trunk as it gets. Rules are precisely about being bold. They provide the structure. Nothing is bolder than doing things your way, especially when you've given a good deal of thought to what your way actually is. We go weak-kneed when we let someone else dictate the way. Most everything I write is a suggestion, not a mandate. The only imperatives are that you think about how you want to live and then you execute the plan. Your plan.
The suggestions the article offered for fashion, parties and events left me cold as a corpse. But the headline warmed me. I like being bold. "Fierce fashion' yields to the style that suits me. I'm lukewarm on 'can't miss' events. A lot of 'can't misses' are 'should misses'. If you're doing it against your better judgment, maybe you should appoint best judgement the keeper of your calendar. But a wow-worthy party- that's something that I love. Mine is nothing like the ones the article suggests, and maybe wow is too exuberant, so let's just say, a party that works. My style, my way. Find the skeleton that supports your lifestyle. Then put some flesh on that bony framework.
It's called being bold.
Our kitchen junk drawer just became decidedly less junky, thanks to Frazz. What was in mine was a stack of coupons for "Klutterhaus"- a store that I have not visited in years. A new coupon comes almost weekly, so there is little chance I'll be caught without one, should one ever be needed. While I was at it, I tossed a few paper calendars-purported thank you gifts from schools and charitable organizations. I got rid of the ink pens that we don't like and the stubby, eraser-less pencil. A few tired birthday candles went in the trash too as they were insufficient in number for any upcoming birthday, and even less sufficient in appearance. A couple of questionable batteries in strange sizes that look like they went to something we no longer owned were recycled.
I've learned my lesson. The "Klutterhaus" coupons won't be a problem anymore. They're going right into the recycling bin without a stop in the neat drawer. What a strange thing for me to have had trouble throwing away. What are the crazy things that give you trouble? Show your drawer who's boss so you can honestly say "I had a kitchen junk drawer."
"O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter was talking about deceptions that get all tangled up such that we can't remember our storyline. Not all tangles are created equal, but a tangle is still a tangle. It's a bit of a mystery how lights can become twisted and knotted while they're asleep in the attic, but Darryl's mess is all too familiar. The Christmas Tangle. Here's a clue. Lights that are hurriedly pulled off the tree and tossed, willy-nilly, into a box, become bezoars. (This is a word my family loves and uses liberally. thus far, only metaphorically.)
This year, when your tree goes dark, spend a few minutes carefully putting the strands to bed so that next year, when you next cue the lights, there is no tangled web, and better yet, no need practice to deceive.
Note: I knew the comics told truths, but I'm surprised by how often the truth they tell reminds me of my Rules. Handle it once. Curate your collection. A place for everything and everything in its place. Mistakes happen- admit, move on and don't make it again.
I'm more bullish on the 'putting up' than the taking down. But I see evidence that even the 'putting up' is losing its luster. Hiring a 'take down' pro has been around for a while. By the time the holiday (and it's not just Christmas anymore) is over, many are over it. It's one explanation for the popularity of artificial trees and greenery. Why un-decorate when you can just put the whole thing in the attic, fully dressed? Over it, also helps explain the hired decorator. Has holiday trimming gone so over-the-top that it overwhelms, turning what used to be an eagerly anticipated family ritual into a hassle to be outsourced? Isn't that like hiring someone to have your fun?
Lots of questions. What are your answers? Are you having fun? If not, rethink things. A holiday paradox: Ours became brighter when we got rid of most of the lights!
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well unless one has dined well.“
Remember Maslow’s needs hierarchy? Food, along with shelter, clothing, and security, is fundamental- a need and a want. While there are many who lack adequate food, I’m pretty sure that no one reading this can make that claim. We are not only fed, but maybe overfed and undernourished- the antitheses of well-fed.
Dining well doesn’t mean dining fancy. Simple, well-seasoned staples with fresh accompaniments embody dining well. It’s real food, prepared at home. Fine, not fancy.
Ideally, eaten at a table! Bar stools in the kitchen might be part of the problem. Actually, the tray table, sofa and car might be too if they make your dining room lonely. We had a lovely but lonely dining room for a number of years. But in our current home, the only fit place to eat is at the dining room table, so that’s what we do. Our dining room is happy to have the company. Sitting down at the table helps us dine well. Some would say two diners at a table for twelve is absurd, but it suits us just fine.
A formal dining room isn’t obligatory. Fine dining can happen in the kitchen or breakfast room. The common denominator is a table. It’s not called ‘farm to barstool’ for a reason. Remembering that any meal is a worthy occasion, we use our nice things. That’s part of dining well. Nice doesn’t mean fussy. When you use your nice things everyday, it de-mystifies them. They are familiar and comfortable. And when something breaks, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing it didn’t die without every having lived. And very little is irreplaceable.
Many in my generation regret that their children don’t want china, silver and linens. But if you’ve seldom used them, you really can’t blame youthful indifference. It’s no wonder the next generation would rather skip it if they’ve mostly heard grousing about how much trouble it is to hand wash the china and launder the linens after they’ve made their rare appearance.
So as the Feast of the Fowl approaches, you’ll probably be pulling out your nice things and dining well. What’s good for Thanksgiving is good for lot of other meals too. Set your harvest table. Prepare a fine meal with delicious fixing. Your thinking, loving and sleeping will thank you. And even if Woolf was wrong on these counts, at the very least, you will have dined well!
Note: This fine gobbler was strutting down the street in Cambridge early one recent Sunday. He exuded an air of confidence knowing that all the hungry Pilgrims were at Plymouth Rock and the folks in his neck of the woods were asleep in their dorms. And even if a few happened to be awake, they’d be hunting coffee, not turkey.
For your nest, refreshed.
With Robin’s Rules of Order, I knew what I was going to write before I started writing. The ending was there from the beginning. I did have to fiddle with the details a bit, but only a bit. Writings on Robin’s Rules has been a whole different beast, but still a companionable one. Rather than declare a book in the works, I declared (only to myself) that when inspiration struck, I’d write an essay exploring a rule or principle. And I was pretty darned inspired. Some of the essays tumbled onto the page as fast I could type; others needed more cajoling.
I only wrote when there was something that caught my attention, but as the year went on, I found that more things, not fewer, were attention-getters. Things I’d previously ignored became impossible to ignore. I’d become a keener observer of people (myself included) and things. When you really look, there’s a lot to see. And the connections to my principles and practices, were at times, eye-popping.
Biting off chewable and digestible pieces, Writings has been pretty delicious. I hope you’ll enjoy it too. Read from start to finish, or pick and choose. The order isn’t important. All that really matters is that you find a few satisfying morsels that make you think, then do.
It is a hard lesson for those of us who have dutifully saved memorabilia and family heirlooms. Our attics and basements and under-bed- bins may be living a lie. The only way to know for sure is to ask the people for whom you have been doing the preserving. The truth can be hard to hear, but listen up. If the intended recipient doesn't even want his stuff, much less, yours, it's time to admit that one generation's heirlooms are another's junk. Your bounty may become their burden.
Robin’s Rules of Order will soon have a sibling, Writings on Robin’s Rules. Anticipated due date is about the time turkeys are being pulled from the oven in late November. The books will share a strong family resemblance. Same height and color, but Writings will have more meat on her bones than her slender sister. No sibling rivalry is expected. They share both nature and nurture.
So what are the giblets (a good Thanksgiving word) pictured above? They are a spread sheet. Not the Excel kind. Literally, a spread sheet. A single sheet of paper cut and separated into lots of pieces. Someone who knows Excel might have spread differently, but this worked for me. It’s my new book, essay by essay. It was like playing Concentration with a deck of fifty cards, except all the cards were face up and I got as many turns as I needed.
Rules for your best nest. Writings to refresh that nest. Stay tuned for updates as the delivery day approaches.
“Trendy is the last stop on the way to tacky.”
What a great quote! Karl Lagerfeld was talking clothing, but beware of all trends. They can lead to tacky. And tacky usually ends up in the trash. Find your style. Steer clear of trends. Be authentic. You do your best when you, are you. Pretending to be someone else is exhausting, expensive, ultimately futile. Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken!
The only question is, "Which season?" It used to be the calendar that sent the alert. But things have gotten all jumbled up. Halloween stuff in summer. Christmas stuff before Halloween. And poor Thanksgiving just trying to carve out a week for itself. Darryl has learned that it really doesn't matter which season- they all require trips to the attic. Some more than others, but all the seasons are stuffed. Might it be time embrace the pared down meaning of trim?
The single sheet is so innocent and unassuming. But unchaperoned sheets become bold, obtrusive piles of who knows what. Let's call them decisions postponed or simply, clutter. You'll pay for that moment of delay with hours of digging out. I'd reconsider the delay!
This ad is from the New Yorker, December 8, 2009. You’ll remember that the Great Recession was in full swing. It was going to be the very thing to shift the pendulum toward less consumption and saner spending. The pendulum is an inherently shifty thing. In 2017, it seems generally to have swung back to more, better things, but a small (maybe growing) segment of society appears amenable to a thoughtful, less-is-more lifestyle.
Count me in that group. A main dish of comic relief (literally, comic) with a side of Rules might bring you along too. As the diamond ad encourages, fewer, better things. What about fewer, better words? I hope the comics that I’ve clipped and curated since 2008 will make a convincing case. A Family Circus strip that inspired a recent essay reminded me of the other comics I’d been squirreling away. Per the diamond ad, they were not "disposable distractions"!
In hopes that winter will come again, I’ve decided to share my stash. All the delicious morsels are laid bare- no tough nuts to crack. That’s what the comics do. They hold up a mirror and reflect a lot of truths in an approachable way. Witty or corny, pointed or gentle, they pack a punch. They are truth tellers in an effortless and economical way, because of fewer, better words. They unintentionally champion the Rules.
So loyal ‘squirrels’ who have decided to stick with me, enjoy these fall tidbits while I crack the next nut, Writings on Robin’s Rules.
Note: It’s a stash of mixed nuts coming your way. Pickles (who my nest mate and I now are), Zits (who we used to be), Lockhorns (who we never hope to be), Cathy (RIP, thankfully), good old Blondie, Pearls, Salt & Pepper, and even a New Yorker to flirt with sophistication. Find your favorites.
Anything But Average* is an experiment that a friend and I began on April Fools’ Day. At the six-month mark, it’s time for an update. So I asked my friend how things were going. And what follows is her soul-baring response.
“I've been dreading the question. I have weeded out quite a bit, which feels good, and have kept mostly only those things whose hanger was turned in the right direction by the middle of summer. But I am a consumer, I'm afraid to say. I was keeping track for a while, and it adds up- a pair of socks today, a bathing suit, then a bathing suit cover up, then a sun hat, then, and then and then. Somewhere in mid summer I lost track. I spend easily on clothes- mostly wants, not needs. The worst feeling about all this is when I buy something that loses its luster almost immediately. For instance, I bought a pair of black flats about a week ago, wore them once and wanted to cut off my feet they hurt so much. I couldn't tell in a ten-minute try on that they would torture me. So, change is in my future- it's got to be a change of heart, an increasing awareness, and not just a contest. I am getting there, slowly.”
Her first sentence filled me with both regret and optimism. Regret for getting her involved in something that had caused her dread, and optimism that the project had encouraged change- on her terms. And that’s the way it should be. Keeping track of purchases wasn’t an end unto itself. It was a tool for increasing self-awareness and for altering behavior. And to those ends, it was a complete success for my friend.
What about the other participant- me? My confession comes with a good bit of dread too. I have dutifully logged every purchase- all seven of them, which includes one pair of socks. The other six items were a bit less trivial, but not much. I’m below average, which on this scale, means above average. But you’ll not find me strutting. In fact, my tail is tucked. I believed I would be better than average and you better believe I was going to prove it. I exhibited so many biases- confirmation, superiority, and social desirability- a psychologist could have a field day.
Without the pressure of the experiment there would have been more purchases. I have no idea how many, but probably not enough to move me from below average territory. I’ll never know because being a test subject changed my behavior. That’s one of the limitations of experiments, but I’m still glad we made our inquiry into stuff.
But we’re shutting down early, so this update is really a final report. The buy/don’t buy dilemma that I anticipated was real. I never once made an acquisition that I didn’t seriously consider whether the enjoyment of the potential purchase would exceed the dread of having to record said purchase. In the end, Anything But Average only confirmed what I already knew. I am a bonafide enoughist. Some people are consumers. Some are minimalists. I’m most comfortable with my version of enough. My strong tendency toward less doesn’t need to be reinforced. The little gray journal exerted powerful control. But I’m back in charge. I might celebrate with another pair of socks!
* For background see Anything But Average (April 14, 2017)
Commonplace, unremarkable, nothing special. These synonyms don’t elevate or enhance ordinary’s humdrum image. But what if we talked about the magnificence in the ordinary. That could perk things up, pronto. So, let’s talk about magnificence, which bespeaks elegance and virtuosity.
When we ignore or give short shrift to ordinary things simply because they are common and unflashy, we do so at our own expense. When we are jaded to simple, humble things, it is our loss. Sometimes the most magnificent things are right under our noses but our upturned noses miss them entirely.
Finding pleasure, and even magnificence in the ordinary is innate, so how is that lost? Age hardens. Affluence desensitizes. Maybe a more charitable assessment- advancing years, mature; and prosperity, sophisticates. But whatever the mechanism, we can be blinded to the beauty and utility of the simple things in our lives. We should wonder where the wonder went.
Enter quietly: Old oil can from the workshop of a long-deceased grandfather. Sure, you can buy a disposable oil can at the hardware store, but it wouldn’t be magnificent like this one. Look at the beautiful shape. The patina. The never leaking threaded cap. The graceful spout. The aperture just right for dispensing a single drop. And this oil can, in all its ordinariness, is also magnificent.
Open your dulled eyes and see clearly. Remember the splendor of blowing the seedheads off a dandelion or watching masses of purple coquinas bury themselves in the wet sand, or feeling the contours of the oil can, still warm from your grandfather’s hand. Remember, and the ordinary will become anything but.
The oil can has taken center stage, but there are many other players who could have stepped in. The heavy pinking shears, the rusted railroad spike that serves as a paperweight, the ebony letter opener, worn smooth with years of use.
Wake up! Celebrate the commonplace and find the magnificence in your life.
Ordinary is making a curtain call. Stand up and applaud.
While opining on the merits of the to-do list, a friend made a comment that astounded me. She said that one of her children- who by every measure is a bright, accomplished, and generous soul, never had a to-do list in her head, much less on paper. For her, the concept simply didn’t exist. She couldn’t scratch things off her list because there was no list. “What’s a “to-do” list? Sounds a bit like the Dowager Countess asking, “What’s a weekend?”
I figured there were many who loafed without a list, but it honestly never occurred to me that there were any competent doers who didn’t keep a list of things that needed to be done. How could this thing that was my constant companion be a complete unknown to a doer? No list was about as plausible as Keebler Elves with a bakeshop in a hollow tree. Never say never, but…
If the list isn’t the rudder that steers the boat, isn’t ‘off course’, par for the course? Isn’t life disorganized and chaotic? Maybe not. Like clutter, chaos is in the eye of the beholder. What looks like mayhem to the list- lover might not faze the list-less. As with most things in life, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. So there is no reason for the list-lover to feel superior to the one who is content to follow life’s ebbs and flows, unimpeded by bossy to-dos. No list is a choice, not a moral failing.
For some, the list satisfies. For others, it punishes. Where you fall on the chaos continuum goes a long way toward explaining whether a list buoys you or brings you down. What’s your tolerance for uncertainty? Proclivity for procrastination? Allegiance to accountability? Answering these questions will help you find your place on the continuum.
I’m devoted to the list because it’s my way of getting things done. And done is the tense of “to do” that suits me best. You know you’re a hardcore list lover when you add something to the list after the fact, for the pure pleasure of scratching it off! Maybe a tad extreme, but not pathologic.
And what about the who person navigates life, sans list? The person for whom pancakes from scratch on a busy school day are more important than signed permission slips and neatly packed bookbags? Maybe a bit out there, but not crazy.
Extreme and out there are just points on the continuum. They’re far removed from center but without the edges, the center wouldn't be the center. So margins, middle and points between- there 's room aplenty. And when you know your way, you'll find your place.
About those elves. I think I've found their place. Adorable! Remember... never say never.