July 4, 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Last weekend after the new air conditioner was installed, I spent some time tidying up the area around it. I weeded, edged, spread some mulch, and replanted a small yucca that had been moved out of the way temporarily. My husband was very helpful carrying the bags of mulch. That area looks much better now.
 

New air conditioner with fresh mulch around it. 

I hadn’t really noticed that it needed improvement before, but that is often what happens when old stuff like a worn-out air conditioner ends up staying around too long. Other things close to it that need maintenance also get overlooked, such as the need for mulch and edging. What’s going on, as far as I can tell, is that the subconscious mind sorts it all into the general category of stuff that’s not being done yet. Then we just keep on walking past it every day without even noticing.

The converse is also true—when there’s something new and fresh around, that makes all the old neglected stuff more noticeable and becomes a powerful motivator to get things in shape. As for my yard in particular, there are a few other areas in need of mulch. If it hadn’t been for the new air conditioner, I might have ignored them a while longer, but now they seem much more obvious.

September 27, 2017 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Some of my past blog entries have included photos of the willow hedge along my back property line, all of which were taken from the side facing the house. This is the first time I’ve taken a photo from this angle, showing the fence, the back of the hedge, and the grass in between:
 

Aluminum fence with a willow hedge to the left. 

Truth be told, until recently I couldn’t have taken a photo like this because I let the back of the hedge get awfully overgrown several years ago, when I wasn’t paying attention. Branches crowding up against the fence turned my husband’s chore of mowing the lawn into something like a jungle adventure.

Then we had two icy cold winters followed by a warm winter and a drought, which stressed the willows enough that some of the older branches started dying back. I pruned off a lot of dead stuff last summer, but it wasn’t until this year that I got the hedge in good enough shape so that my husband could easily walk behind it while pushing the mower.

With plenty of open space, it looks much better now. Getting rid of clutter and keeping things in their proper place is just as worthwhile outdoors as it is in the house!

My daughter rented a two-bedroom apartment in Cleveland, although she does not have a roommate. The main reason seems to be that she wants to use the second bedroom as a giant walk-in closet to accommodate her extravagant shopping habits, which I illustrated on this blog last summer with a photo of the closet in my entryway, totally full of her coats and shoes.

Although her original plan was to move out last year, it did not happen then, which probably was for the best because staying here another year gave her time to save up some money and get a clearer idea of what she wanted to do. But now she is gone and the closet is empty, except for a few hangers; all its overflowing contents got packed into large cardboard boxes for a one-way trip.
 

Closet with nothing in it but hangers. 

Sometime in the near future I’m going to clean the closet floor and polish the woodwork. Then I’ll paint the walls a nice bright color to get rid of the scuff marks from being piled high with all those pairs of shoes.

One thing I’ve learned from cleaning up clutter around the house is the value of empty space. People tend to think about their stuff mainly in terms of buying more of it, and about empty areas in terms of what else can be put there; but I would say that a comfortable house needs to have enough empty space so that everyone can move around easily and find their stuff when they want it.

There’s a lot more to changing the world than just pointing to a problem and saying “This is wrong—fix it now!” Yes, identifying the problem is necessary; but it’s generally not sufficient. That is because the existing situation, however unjust or illogical, has (or had) some degree of social utility—otherwise, it never would have happened. So when a particular way of doing things isn’t working well in today’s society, we should first examine how it was meant to work, and then consider how the problem might be solved while still accomplishing the intended goal.

Several years ago, I had a conversation on a forum with a woman who complained about her husband’s inconsiderate behavior. She was a short woman with a mobility impairment, and she couldn’t access the higher shelves in her kitchen cabinets without great difficulty. When she needed something from one of those shelves, she generally asked her husband or one of her children to get it down for her. Of course, it would have been much easier if all the items she regularly used were on the lower shelves; but when her husband did the grocery shopping, he often put some of them on the higher shelves without thinking about it. Although she had reminded him many times, he never paid enough attention to get it right, and there was always something she wanted that was out of reach.

The husband evidently had good intentions—he wanted to take care of his family by bringing home the groceries and putting them away. He probably felt that he was being unfairly criticized because the grocery shopping was enough of a chore in itself, without also being expected to remember what shelves his wife had in mind for everything. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but simply couldn’t keep track of all the details of what items she wanted where. Nagging him was counterproductive because it wasn’t likely to improve his memory and would only make him resentful.

I suggested that she reorganize the kitchen, with her children’s help, one day when her husband wasn’t at home. To the extent possible, everything would be moved to the lower shelves. Then the upper shelves could be filled with bulky extra items, such as multiple packs of paper towels and toilet paper bought on sale. That would ensure her husband couldn’t put any groceries there. She would also save money by stocking up on paper products while they were on sale. And because her husband paid so little attention to detail, he probably wouldn’t even notice that anything in the kitchen looked different. From then on, he would always put the groceries on the lower shelves, without even thinking about it, because that’s where all the free space would be.

In the context of changing the behavior of societies, rather than individuals, filling the available space also works well. Prejudiced assumptions and insensitive attitudes can be dealt with by ensuring that the public discourse reflects many different perspectives. This approach often results in more success than yelling at the majority group that they’re a bunch of bigoted jerks who don’t understand how privileged they are. Even if it’s true, they are not going to want to hear it, and they’ll dismiss the criticism as unfair and unreasonable.

But if people going about their everyday business just happen to find other viewpoints taking up the cultural space where the prejudices used to go—well, then it’s not so easy to stuff those big awkward prejudices into a space where they don’t fit anymore. And when there are a lot of diverse perspectives occupying society’s cultural-narrative shelves, there’s probably going to be something that looks more useful. So those outdated prejudices simply end up being set aside, like worn-out clothing or obsolete technologies, because they no longer have a place in today’s world.

Among the items that my husband and I keep on the desk next to the computer monitor in our study, there is a metal nail file. If I notice that the pointy end of the file is facing toward me while I’m sitting at the computer, I pick up the file and turn it around. Having a sharp object pointing toward me seems disturbing, even though the file has never actually poked me. I expect many people in our modern culture would dismiss this as a neurotic worry, or perhaps wonder if I have an obsessive need to arrange things in particular ways.

But according to feng shui—the ancient Chinese art of design—avoiding sharp objects in one’s environment is both a natural response and an effective way to improve one’s mental health. Sharp objects or corners pointing toward a person are called “secret arrows,” a phrase that refers to the subconscious disturbing effect they have when they go unnoticed. When something sharp in a home or workspace gives the impression it might cause injury, it leaves people subconsciously feeling that they need to be on their guard. This can cause anxiety to build up over time.

Feng shui designers recommend being careful, not only about the placement of sharp objects on desks and tables, but also about the corners of the desks and tables themselves. If a piece of furniture has a sharp corner positioned in such a way that it might bother a person looking at it, moving the furniture or placing a houseplant or other harmless object in front of the corner is advised. Even sharply angled corners of nearby buildings can be secret arrows; when this happens, interposing a tree, a fountain, or another landscaping feature can help to create a more relaxed feeling.

Although some aspects of feng shui may simply be old superstitions or otherwise unsuited to our modern society, I believe there is merit in the basic premise that how we arrange our physical environment affects how we feel about our lives. Rather than adopting the view “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” and forcing ourselves to put up with small irritants in the belief that doing so improves our coping ability, we might do better to arrange our surroundings in ways that leave us feeling more at peace and refreshed.

People accumulate a lot of stuff in today’s society. We have a vast abundance of material goods, far more than at any time in the past; and often we don’t give much thought to what we’re going to do with them all. Our homes are overflowing with things that don’t have a place. Even if we are not classic hoarders or struggling with a garage that’s too full of junk to get the car inside, we still have to decide where to keep the things we buy.

Put another way, for every purchase we make in our modern consumer society, there is a corresponding drain on our mental energy as we ponder what we’re going to do with it. And after that gets sorted, we often need to rearrange other things in turn. We don’t always notice when we do this, and we may not trace the cause-and-effect chain all the way through.

By way of illustration: During the summer, my husband and I decided to buy a Keurig coffeemaker. We never drank enough coffee to make a standard coffeepot worthwhile, but we bought occasional cups at Starbucks or the gas station convenience store. So we thought a single-serving coffeemaker would be ideal—no bags of old coffee getting stale, and we could have a carousel with several different flavors.

After we made these purchases, we had to decide where to put them on the kitchen counter. The carousel fit into the corner well enough. The coffeemaker took more time to get situated because some decorative items already occupied the preferred location, which was the counter space underneath the cabinet that holds the dishes. We got the decorations rearranged, after a few tries, in a way that made enough space for the coffeemaker and still looked almost the same. We also bought travel cups, which we put in the corner cabinet above the new carousel.

At first we bought only small boxes of K-cups, the contents of which mostly fit into the carousel. Space didn’t seem to be a problem. But then, not surprisingly, we found that we were drinking more coffee because it was so much more convenient. After we had sampled various flavors and decided which ones we liked best, we thought it made more sense to order large boxes online and get the volume discount. When the boxes arrived, we had to make room for them in the pantry. That wasn’t too difficult; but, as it turned out, there was still more to be done.

We already had a set of cups that matched our dishes. I regularly used them for hot tea before we got the coffeemaker. I thought they would be fine for coffee, too; but after we started drinking coffee more often, my husband told me that he would prefer to use mugs, rather than cups. We had some promotional mugs with various logos, none of which matched. Because we hadn’t used them, we kept them in the high cabinet above the refrigerator. To make space on an easily reachable shelf of the cabinet above the coffeemaker, we first had to take out some plastic glasses, and then we had to rearrange the contents of another cabinet to make room for the displaced glasses.

At this point, my husband had two mismatched mugs in the preferred spot above the coffeemaker. One was a large red mug that had been a blood donor freebie, and the other was a smaller white mug with a college sports logo. That looked awkward because almost everything else in the cabinet was part of a matched group. While doing some Christmas shopping, I found a nice boxed set of two mugs that read “Joy to the World” and featured a cheerful winter scene. Problem solved, or so I thought.

But I never did move the old mismatched mugs to the cabinet above the refrigerator because it occurred to me that my husband might want one of them if he drank more than two cups of coffee in a day, or if we forgot to run the dishwasher. So at the present time, all four mugs are residing in the cabinet above the coffeemaker. They still look awkward and don’t fit well either.

I’m probably going to move the old mugs to the cabinet where we put the plastic glasses when we first made space for the mugs. But right now, the remaining space on that shelf is taken up by a box of K-cups in assorted holiday flavors. I have the options of moving the box to the pantry, which would be less convenient because the pantry is farther away from the carousel; moving the box to another cabinet and doing more rearranging; or finding another place for the old mugs, which would also require more rearranging. And so the saga continues…

I have been enjoying the coffeemaker, and I very much appreciate the wonders of modern technology making such small indulgences possible. This post isn’t meant as a complaint, but simply as an observation that our consumer culture takes up more of our mental energy than we may realize. We shouldn’t assume that if people are having trouble clearing away clutter or adjusting to small changes, there must be something wrong with them. Today’s world requires us to deal with more clutter and more small changes as part of our everyday lives. These are cultural issues, not just individual problems. We should consider how our social structures might be adapted to better suit our needs in this regard.

Last weekend I moved two hostas that I had planted in my front garden almost a decade ago. They were a gift from a neighbor who found that she had extras while she was doing her spring planting. Because I already had a few hostas of a different variety, I assumed that the new ones would be about the same size. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case, as often happens with assumptions.

For the first few years, I admired the big glossy leaves of the new hostas, which were noticeably larger than the leaves of the other variety. After a while they grew together to form a big clump, and I thought that was okay because the older hostas also had grown close to each other. My husband mentioned that he liked the big ones. They looked very impressive, robust and healthy.

But they just kept on growing. I realized that I had a problem when they started overgrowing the front walkway. Because hostas are round plants with leaves growing out from the center, they can’t be trimmed along one side without ending up lopsided; so cutting them back was out of the question. Last summer their leaves stretched halfway across the concrete next to my porch steps. Visitors and pizza delivery people had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on them. Now that they had become so enormous, I was left with an embarrassing display of gardening foolishness in full view of all the neighbors. There was no doubt those hostas would have to be moved farther back in the garden to give them more room to grow.

I wasn’t looking forward to that chore, though, and I kept finding reasons to put it off. The heat of the summer wouldn’t be a good time to move plants; and once we got into the cooler autumn weather, there was always something going on that made a convenient excuse. Then it was winter and they dropped their leaves, allowing me to ignore them until the spring. I finally got around to moving them last weekend.

Relying on assumptions when we don’t have enough facts is, of course, human nature. It served our ancestors well for most of our history, when people often had to make immediate decisions on which their lives depended. Was it a hungry wolf in those rustling bushes, or was it a deer? Did that group of men from another tribe, coming into view over the hill, have plans to attack the village? Making snap judgments was a very useful survival skill in those days.

Now we have easy access to information, and most of us aren’t likely to find predators (human or otherwise) lurking near our homes when we step outside. Still, both our decision-making processes and the structure of our society took shape when life was much more precarious. We make assumptions all the time, just as our ancestors did; and when they are challenged, our first reaction is fear. We’re afraid of what might happen if we let ourselves get distracted thinking about other possibilities, only to find out that there really was a wolf in the bushes after all.

So when we’re told about a group of people who need more room to grow in our collective cultural garden, we don’t want to hear it. We react with denial: those big leaves can’t be taking up that much space, can they? Maybe we step on them sometimes, but hey, there’s got to be some way to shove them back where they belong and make sure they stay there. After all, they weren’t so much in the way before. And just think of the nuisance it would be to dig new holes!

Then after a while, our society grudgingly decides it’s time to stop putting off the chore, just as I did with my hostas last weekend. Even though I’d been dreading it and making excuses for the better part of a year, it wasn’t really that hard after all.