Monday, December 25, 2017

Tidying Up


I recently spotted Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on sale for $2. Tidying is a self-help staple. What Dr. Spock was to nervous new mothers in the 50s and 60s, I imagine Marie Kondo is to millennial women trying to get the #minimalist #aesthetic for the 'gram.

I've read the book before, but $2 was hard to beat. I snatched it up to bring to my parents' over Winter Break.

Kondo's book advocates aggressively removing any items from your home that do not "spark joy," in the pursuit of creating a more fulfilling, functional, and minimalist living space. Grown out of those clothes ten years ago? Sell them. Don't know why you own twenty-eight dysfunctional pens? Throw them out. Finish reading a book and think you won't read it again? Give it away.

"I'm going to start consolidating around the house. I bought The Life-Changing Magic-whatever book on sale," I announced at dinner.

"You already had that book," my mom said.

I didn't let the ironic origins of my cleaning mania stop me from attacking an old bureau, opening drawers to complain loudly about odds and ends being in the wrong places. There was a mysterious key. A bubble mailer just filled with nails. Behind this year's Christmas cards and some of the stars of our family's inexplicable collection of owl statues (actually explicable: inherited from a great-grandmother) were two fluorescent tubes.

"Yo Dad, do these work?"

He shrugged. "It's not the kind of thing you can just throw out. You'd have to take that to a toxic waste facility or something."

I moved on to easier targets, sorting books no one wanted to read into boxes.

"Isn't 1984 a classic?" my mom asked.

"Yeah, but we have two copies. And this one's font is too small."

Decluttering felt good. There was something cathartic about putting books that had gathered dust for ages into a clear plastic bin, for new lives at used bookstores or the Prisoners Literature Project, a Berkeley-based non-profit that sends books to inmates in California jails. Even more fulfilling was recycling: mounds of old receipts, Post-It notes with scribbled reminders from years past, brochures and guides for places we didn't want to go.

"Are you doing all this cleaning so you don't have to when we die?" my mom said suspiciously.

"No!" I protested. "I'm doing it so that you have a better quality of life."

In the middle of all the cleaning, I went to the backyard patio to check on some line-drying laundry. The landscape that day was picturesque--the sun shone over the distant hills and illuminated the dry leaves fluttering around my feet. Everything looks prettier bathed in sunlight. Even all the random odds and ends lying around gained a bucolic Kinkade painting quality. There was the half-broken table that had practically come apart when my grandfather and I tried to move it, some vase shards, too many cast-off wooden planks to count.

Chief of all the odds and ends was one woven together: what looked like an old bedsheet or maybe something of a stiffer constitution, like a curtain, strung up into a shape approximating a hammock. It hung from the patio roof beams by a sort of composite rope. It was several old lanyards and pieces of yarn, tied to one another.

Growing up, my sister and I played in a backyard littered with the ambitious skeletons of house repairs and landscaping projects that never were: broken bricks and rusting nails and dried-out paint pans. We ground things up and made bad sculptures with Found Materials before we knew that was a thing some fancy artists in museums did. There is a Life-Changing Magic to Making Random Things Out of All That Shit Lying Around, too. There's clearly a line to be drawn between having some bric-a-brac and being featured on A&E's "Hoarders," and in general I agree with the principle of getting rid of stuff you don't need. But part of me also wonders what happens to the kids who grow up in immaculate homes with tame grass-lawn backyards. What happens when you live in a Marie Kondo-ized house?

On my quest to throw away all the random things lying around the house that no one could describe as functional or "sparking joy," I realized that I would have thrown away the old lanyards that made up the improvised chain link holding up the hammock, and probably the half-falling-apart wooden table and bag of rusty nails, too, all banished off to some land across the sea where our unwanted things go.

And I couldn't tell, then, if I missed them.

I stared at the hammock for a long time. Then I went back inside, and I kept on tidying.

Monday, December 18, 2017

An ode to BART


I recently met an SF resident, a friend of a relative, who I'll call Trina. She said blithely that she had never taken BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, our local subway system).

"I just Uber everywhere," she said, shrugging.

To well-heeled Bay Area tech workers, the cost of Ubers everywhere might be chump change. But it's actually incredibly costly in terms of its effects on governance and society. Folks like Trina choosing to never step foot on a BART train has detrimental consequences for the system's maintenance and further development--as Keith Barry writes in Wired, public transit is underfunded because the wealthy don't rely on it.

On another level, there's something about public transit that teaches you about how to be in the world, how to sit with people who look and talk and think differently from you. After high school and college, where people from different kinds of family backgrounds get squished together in lunch periods and dorm rooms, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to meet people who are different. (Side note: educational systems aren't exactly always shining paragons of diversity, either.) Place of worship? Millennials are less likely to attend religious services than older generations. Relationships? Modern folks are increasingly likely to marry someone of the same education level.

But then there's public transit. Riding BART, I've heard couples fighting and tech bros talking about weddings in Napa. Smelled tobacco and vomit and bergamot perfume. Seen shirtless street performers and hipsters in orange Patagonia puffers leaning on their bikes, kids in polka-dotted strollers and weathered old men with belongings in plastic bags. I've rested my head on the window and considered my reflection, swimming in the scratched-up glass next to the towering container cranes of the Port of Oakland.

In Ubers or Lyfts, I squirm on leather seats and charge my phone. Sometimes I talk to the driver, if they're game, if I'm not too tired. The last time I took a Lyft, back to my apartment from a pre-birthday dinner with my sister, our driver started with "You're my first passengers--ever! I just started driving!"

"Congratulations," I said, "uh, welcome to Lyft, I guess?"

As we went the wrong way and our driver pulled over to do a U-turn, she commented again, "Sorry, this is my first time, thanks for being so patient." She apologized a couple more times, asked us if the music was too quiet or too loud or if we wanted to listen to anything else in particular and if she should turn the heat up.

Drivers for Uber famously can get kicked off the service for getting less than around a 4.7 rating; I'm not sure about Lyft. It made me feel icky about our driver's solicitousness. It felt like it was something out of that Black Mirror episode "Nosedive"--in a dystopian, pastel-colored land of seemingly perfect people, everyone rates each other on their phone after every interaction, and your rating, much like a credit score, determines the class of goods and services you can access. It's certainly not quite Black Mirror, but Uber and Lyft link your behavior to access, too.

On BART, you have to think about what we owe to each other when it isn't mediated by ratings and money. How to share space and give directions to a lost tourist and when to stand up and offer your seat to someone else. You can't pay a premium to get a roomier train car or skip stops or quiet the train's metal-on-metal scream on the tracks in the tunnel under the Bay. When there's no more space for hands on the center pole, you'll learn how to stand upright in a crowd. And when you're grumbling in your head about all the strangers around you, you'll realize that it's those strangers who will catch you if you fall.