Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chi whiz: Why clutter holds sway

Feng shui was in the stars for me this weekend. I haven't quite aligned my home's chi with heaven and earth. But I have been clearing clutter, which for me can be like moving heaven and earth.

All the rage a few years ago, feng shui is a Chinese concept that places buildings in relation to the stars. Older Chinese expatriates seemed to see it as a silly pseudo-science, the way I think of astrology — why would the alignment of the planets have more effect on me at birth than the alignment of the doctor's hand slapping my butt?

But interior designers discovered feng shui and liked the idea of an ancient wisdom that gave everything a proper place in the world. Newly rebranded as feng shui consultants, the decorators would tell you the best place to put a door to concentrate the energy or "chi" in the room.

That does seem a lot like the astrologist who predicts the result when a Libra tries to get it on with a Pisces. (The Libra would say, "If it was good for you, it was good for me." The Pisces would say, "What was your name again?")

In feng shui, clutter is said to make you tired, cranky and unfocused. I do not need a feng shui master to tell me that. My wife would say that describes me perfectly.

There's no dispute that clutter is an irritating distraction. Every room of my house has some reminder of an uncompleted project: Extra furniture. A boxed ceiling fan. A running toilet. Gaps in the floorboards, holes in the wall.

It's dangerous watching cable TV, because the home transformations on HGTV or TLC or the Style channel invariably start with "before" scenes that look like the "after" in my household. Every show seems to inspire another trip to the Home Depot to start a newly unfinished project.

A friend suggested the path to serenity: Turn off the TV set.

Clutter can be a compulsion, but fortunately there's a help line for everything that ails you. When the voice on the phone said, "For help with compulsion press 1," I pressed the button. I pressed it again. And again.

Not that I'm a hoarder. The Chicago Tribune printed a harrowing story about a reclusive couple who collected a houseful of stuff, floor to ceiling. When neighbors complained they weren't taking out the trash, the city discovered they had been literally trapped by their trash and firefighters had to break into their home to free them.

I can't say I'm anything like that. Well, it did take awhile to find the Tribune clipping. And I'm from a long line of pack rats. You knew I was into a serious relationship not when I took a girl home to meet Mom and Dad but when I let her see the basement. That was always an adventure, finding our way back upstairs.

No, my issue is that everything stacked up at home is a reminder of more work. The only way to do them is to manufacture more hours in a day. This is how insomnia was invented, and although it has proved a boon to the Internet, insomnia does not get things done.

As managers we're used to breaking down tasks and taking at least the action that inches the ball another yard toward the goal post. With luck the goal posts don't move. What business has that's lacking in a home life is the way that profit can identify a losing proposition.

Unprofitable habits don't run out of money, they just wear their way into your life like dirt in a rug. At some point you have to go "NYPD Blue" with such a habit and start beating it out. That's usually when my habits lawyer up.

It's great to have friends if you have such habits. They stage an intervention of sorts: Their visit forces you to clean up. This weekend gave Brenda and I motivation to start getting organized before a Memorial Day cookout. We went through the house throwing out heirloom crossword puzzles and antique shopping lists. Most things easily sorted themselves into two piles: trash or compost.

Now the loose organic matter is pickling in a trash bin and surfaces are scrubbed with bleach. Chlorine at the YMCA turned my hair to straw, so I still find bleach a bit scary. A good splash of bleach will turns my wardrobe into rags, so I do treat it with the respect I would give a mob enforcer. But it seems to scare tea stains into submission.

Feng shui would hold that clutter traps energy as surely as it imprisons compulsive hoarders. Now I'm waiting for all the positive chi to move in, although with luck I won't have to wait longer for the shower.

Will we be able to keep this up? They say time is the best teacher, although it kills the students.

I'm told the ying and yang of energy are constantly shifting, which I guess means it could go either way. It's like when you first try yoga. A couple of bad sessions and you start whining to your instructor, "This is terrible. I get distracted, my back aches, I start nodding off. I can't stand it."

The teacher calmly answers, "It will pass."

Then just a week later everything clicks. You go to the teacher and say, "This is great! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive!"

The teacher calmly answers, "It will pass."