Posts filed under 'getting organized'

The Inner Agnes

Earlier this year, an amazing professional organizer named Agnes came into my entropic apartment and -- with a kind of charming, New Agey relentlessness -- whipped my things into shape. Much was thrown out. Much was filed away. Some was placed into storage. And throughout the process I longed for it all to be ... over. Not that I didn't enjoy Agnes's company. Not that I wasn't insanely thrilled when my wife and son returned from work and school, respectively, to find order where there had previously been chaos (almost all of it due to my habitual clutterosity). It's just that it was so very difficult for me to sit in the place where I had made a mess and face that mess. If Agnes hadn't been here I would have (a) slept, (b) gone to the cafe, (c) joined the Foreign Legion -- anything to get away from the piles of me-ness everywhere: bills, magazines, books, the occasional buried snack ... But whenever I showed signs of flagging, Agnes would cheerfully urge me on to the next task: open that envelope, shred those receipts, have a sip of coffee, now let's go to Ikea and buy some bookshelves! ...

It was exhausting. It was challenging. It changed my life.

And now I'm on my own. I mean, Agnes is still available; it's just that I can't afford her right now. Which is just as well, in a way, as the whole point -- or at least most of the point -- was for me to make a habit out of organizing my own stuff. And in the past, busy months, my desk -- pristine as of Agnes's last visit -- had again become overrun with papers, wires, DVD's, and such. I could feel the Old Me creeping back -- see it, actually, as it teetered on either side of my laptop, threatening to collapse. Would all of my hard work with Agnes have been for naught?

No, not for naught: What Agnes did was establish a place for each sort of thing to go -- plastic bins, file drawers, CD and DVD towers, bookcases, and little magnetic basket thingies for receipts and BART tickets. And what I learned this weekend was that I could summon my Inner Agnes. I firmly but cheerfully coaxed myself into sorting, throwing out, etc. I even made a couple of labels to put on things (never underestimate the pleasures to be had from a good labeler). And when the obsessive-compulsive person who lives beneath my slothful exterior showed signs of taking over and demanding an impossible level of perfection, I ordered myself to take a deep breath and a long sip of coffee, then went back to the task at hand (accomplishing it imperfectly).

All the while, the sadistic person living inside that obsessive-compulsive person would be reminding me off all the other tasks that I wasn't accomplishing. But fortunately my Inner Agnes would keep my eyes focused on the particular thing I was doing: a small thing in and of itself, but the kind of thing that -- in aggregate -- clears away the clutter of self-recrimination and makes space for ... life? work? happiness?

I don't want to get carried away here. I mean, I'm just saying I straightened things up a bit. But I guess I'm also saying that this felt wonderful and new and right. Thank you, Agnes -- both within and without. I think you're neat.

November 12th, 2006

Back at Work

It's very exciting to be back in KQED's San Francisco offices, after a summer spent traveling. We're in pre-production for our show's second season -- and (in contrast to how I felt at my old day jobs, mostly as a really bad secretary) it's really cool to have a cubicle waiting for me. My newly acquired organizing skills will be tested in the coming days, as I make my way through piles of wonderful-looking books and press releases and such.

My series producer, Lori Halloran, is across the way from me, tapping away at her computer; perhaps, at her relatively advanced stage of pregnancy, we finally have the same waist size! (That's what happened to my wife in her ninth month carrying our son -- one of the few occurrences that wasn't predicted in our copy of What To Expect When You're Expecting.) My executive producer, Michael Isip, is meeting in his office with one of my former guests (I hope they're not complaining about me). ... This building (KQED's) is like a small city, and after a year here I still feel like I'm just learning the terrain. (One thing I can state with certainty, though, is that our station must have the best-dressed HR staff in the industry.)

So everything's cool. But I'm still having my usual trouble with transitions (beginning with each day's devastating transition from sleep to [relative] consciousness). Even though virtually all the tasks ahead of me are delightful ones, I keep obsessively turning over certain minor-ish dragalicious details in my greenhouse-effect of a brain: Like, for example, the problem I've been having with Earthlink. I wrote a whiny blog item about it, and actually got an incredibly kind comment back from a real-to-life Earthlink blogger, asking if my problem had been resolved. Since then, I've been corresponding with him via email -- but still, frustratingly, my issue remains unaddressed (on July 25, without any warning, all my incoming email was deleted, all the drafts and copies of sent emails were wiped away as well, and -- for good measure -- the extra storage space I've been paying for was taken away). Ever since that day, Earthlink has been promising me that my problem was being "escalated" to an "engineer," who would soon be calling me. Finally, last week, that call came -- on my home phone's answering machine, when I wasn't there -- but the engineer left neither a name nor a phone number for a callback. And this is from a company that has consistently provided me exemplary customer service -- I'm not talking about a nightmarish, MySpace-type situation here!

Anyhow, with this relatively small but irritating matter continually tickling at my thoughts, I've found a great deal of solace in a book titled Dreaming in Code. You can't get it yet, because Crown Books won't be publishing it till next January. But I've read it in manuscript -- and even though its author, Scott Rosenberg, is a dear friend of mine, I can honestly and objectively report to you that it's an incredible book. The subtitle may or may not be "Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs -- and One Quest for Transcendent Software" -- but in any case, that should give you a sense of the ambitious task Scott set himself: to somehow weave a page-turning narrative out of the -- to most of us -- absolutely forbidding subject of all that mysterious software that our lives currently depend on. I imagine that, as the pub date approaches, Scott will be writing about some of this stuff in his amazingly eclectic blog -- but in the meantime, I just wanted to give a head's-up about Dreaming in Code to anyone else out there who, like me, has sometimes been made to feel helpless and/or hopeless about aspects of our marvelously computerized existence. ...

I have to (actually) get back to work now, but I feel moved to add at least one gratuitous Scott Rosenberg story from back in the day -- so here it is: I used to host a radio show in Boston called "The Urban Happiness Radio Hour." We broadcast from the radio station at MIT (where I was working as a really bad secretary in the Biology Dept. office), and our engineer was always stoned and usually quite surly (perhaps he should have been more stoned?). My all-volunteer cast included Scott, then a freelance critic at the weekly Boston Phoenix (we'd met when I was a copy editor there). Scott's main role was as the "Urban Happiness Film Critic," who invariably would digress from his film review and begin ranting about his relationship problems. (I hasten to add that I wrote the scripts, which were totally -- totally! -- fictional, and which were, I'm ashamed to say, mostly written during my secretarial hours.) Our show was broadcast live, and inevitably there were glitches. For instance, on the episode when I was introducing Scott's critic character, we both realized -- at the last moment -- that I hadn't yet come up with a name for him. As Scott stood next to me at the microphone and I began reading the introduction, we both were wide-eyed with wonderment as to what name I'd come up with. (What came out -- after an uncomfortable pause -- was "Fred Schmertz." Who knows where from?) ... Another time I was trying to show the engineer how we could get the door-slamming sound I wanted for a sketch by slamming the actual door to our studio. The engineer was pretty fried, so I had to repeatedly open and slam the door, over and over, by way of illustration. I didn't realize that, at the same time, Scott was repeatedly trying to enter that same door from the other side, too polite to point out that it was being slammed in his face. ... And then there was our Election Day sketch -- an elaborate routine that, at its climax, called for my character (the outgoing mayor, I believe) to pull a gun on Scott's character. Perhaps chastened by the door-slamming incident, I had given a sound-effects record to our engineer, showing him which track had the sound of a gunshot -- but, in his usual state of surly vagueness, he had placed the needle on the following track -- so that when I announced, on live radio, that I had finally had it with my nemesis, our listeners (if, in fact, there was more than one -- we didn't have access to the ratings) heard, instead, the sound of a file drawer opening. Scott and I stared at each other, initially at a loss. Finally, in my desperation, I blurted out: "Okay, I'm opening this file drawer and am pulling out a bang-bang gun! Bang bang! You're dead!" To which, I believe, Scott responded with some of the most grateful death gurgles that have ever been broadcast. ... Good times, good times! ...

2 comments August 16th, 2006


If I may, I would like to coin the term "Org!" My definition would be this: The cry emitted by a recovering sloppy person as he or she slogs through a lifetime's accumulation of assorted stuff.

I have been uttering "Org!" a lot lately, and I have to admit that the battle against entropy has been taking its toll. The professional organizer I hired, a very forceful woman named Agnes, seemed to sense that my determination was flagging. So yesterday, in the middle of one of our marathon sessions in my ultra-cluttered apartment, she sat me down for a little talk.

For a few long moments, we just sat there. Clearly, Agnes had something important and difficult to tell me, and was trying to formulate just the right words. I sipped my coffee, waiting and wondering: Was she going to dump me as a client? Had my cassette collection -- in which not a single tape is in its correct box -- finally pushed her over the edge? Or did our kitchen table, which magically fills up with tumblicious piles of assorted papers between each of her visits, represent the final straw? Had she lost hope of ever finding the final straw?

Remember, we're talking about a woman who has cleaned up some really bad situations. We're talking about a woman who says, with pride, "I learned organization in Germany." We're talking about a woman who sees the glass not as half-empty, or half-full, but half-an-inch out of alignment with the other glasses on the shelf. We're talking about a perfectionist. And if my little family is anything, I would have to say that we are staunch imperfectionists. Perhaps Agnes had finally met her match.

Finally, she spoke. "I think, Josh," she began, in her delightful Hungarian-Jewish accent, "that we must rededicate ourselves to the task at hand. We are about at the midpoint, I would say. And it is my experience, with many clients in the past, that this is the point at which they start to phase out a bit. If this behavior is not nipped in the bud, I know what will happen: we will get your apartment in good shape, but then I'll come back a year later and it will be a mess again."

She was right: I had been phasing out a bit. It's a massive endeavor -- not only to rationalize a very small living space that's filled with tons of stuff, but also to create new habits of neatness after a lifetime of sloth. In college my roommates often thought I was out, when I was simply behind all the newspapers and such. When I had my first apartment, in my early 20s, I bought some dishes, ate food on them, and placed them in the sink -- and in the sink they stayed, as I waited for the dishwashing fairy to come and clean them; by the time I moved out, a year later, that sink had become fit only for a science experiment. Even now, as a mature, middle-aged person who votes and is kind to animals, I get sleepy and disoriented when I try to focus on housework.

But that's not the person I want to be!

So I hereby rededicate myself to this organizational process. I have been a slob for 46 years, but shall remain one no longer. This is where I draw the line in the carpet. Hear me, world: Ich bin ein Organizer!

November 17th, 2005

A Busy Week …

I'm just kind of catching my breath today. This week we taped two shows: On Tuesday I interviewed Anthony Swofford, author of the great Gulf War memoir Jarhead, which has recently been adapted into a feature film. Then on Friday (our usual taping day) I chatted with actress Joan Chen, whose filmmaking debut -- Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl -- is an incredibly beautiful, heartfelt movie that you can (with some small effort) find on video (though not on DVD). (We had added the Tuesday taping because it was the only day Swofford would be available.) In between, on Thursday, we taped a "Wandering Josh" segment in which I tried to learn to be a Sam Spade-type gumshoe.

And while all this was happening, our apartment was being Agnes-ized. I mentioned in an earlier entry that I'd hired a professional organizer to try to tame the mess I have inflicted on our family's little two-bedroomer. Well, she's been over a few times now, and it's been kind of amazing. New bookcases have arrived from Ikea, many old solicitations for pre-approved credit cards have been recycled, and the mere re-angling of our bed has brought a whiff of feng shui to the master bedroom. My wife's collapsed closet has been sturdily rebuilt by an Orthodox Jewish handyman, nearly bringing her to Talmudic tears of gratitude. And at Agnes's suggestion, I asked our building manager whether the nine years' accumulation of mold on our walls might call for a repainting; shortly thereafter, a very nice painter named Phil (religious affiliation unknown) came over and repainted much of our apartment -- including Sara's closet, which Agnes then re-reorganized. ...

I can sense that Agnes is a very spiritual person -- that she sees organizing people's lives as a higher calling. And I can tell that in me she has found her entropic Moriarty: a person whose genius for creating clutter nearly matches her own for eliminating it. Our messy pad may seem unassuming to the casual visitor (not that we've been allowing any!), but to a world-class de-clutterer like Agnes it's the Holy Grail -- that ultimate challenge that can either make or break an organizer's career. What the late Johnny Cochran was to the O.J. trial, Agnes aims to be here -- defender of the indefensible, poetic conjurer of the unlikely victory: If the mess doesn't fit, you mustn't submit. If she succeeds in her unlikely quest -- and she's already made significant headway! -- then "Agnes" and "Josh's apartment" may come to rival "Hercules" and "Augean Stable" in the heroic literature. ...

4 comments October 29th, 2005

Agnes Day

So I got fed up with all the mess in our apartment -- most of it inflicted by my out-of-control paper stuff -- and I hired a professional organizer, named Agnes.

As I prepared for Agnes's arrival today (we had set aside seven straight hours to start digging through stuff), my stomach kept churning -- possibly because of last night's super burrito, but more likely due to the life-changing possibilities of getting my things in order.

It was pretty intense. I threw out nine or ten bags of garbage and recycling -- and that was just from one corner of the living room. I found my old cassette tape of the great soundtrack from John Waters's Hairspray movie -- and the software I bought over a year ago that supposedly converts cassette tapes and vinyl albums into mp3's. (The fact that I no longer have a cassette player and am afraid to open the software's packaging shouldn't take anything away from the magnitude of this find.) ... More discoveries: It turns out that behind all those boxes of books was ... a bookcase! Who knew? ... Also, apparently our living room has a floor -- in that corner, at least. ... Oh, the wonders I've seen today!

As our time was running out, Agnes sat me down at this computer and together we went to the Ikea website. I found out that at Ikea they give their furniture styles human names, like "Billy." Agnes asked me if I liked Billy. I said that I had no problem with Billy. And now, one day soon, heavily muscled Ikea workpeople will bring Billy to our little apartment. They will not assemble Billy, however. For that, I will have to hire a handyperson -- who will have to work quickly, by the way, or else risk being incorporated by the mold that's streaming in through the cracks between the window frame and the wall. (Come to think of it, the mold might get Billy, too. I sure hope Ikea doesn't send people over to pre-screen customers' living spaces.) ...

The prospect of all this change is exciting -- thrilling, even -- but I must admit that the old ways were simpler. You just threw stuff down in piles, then when the piles built up you put the stuff in boxes, then when there were too many boxes you got real sleepy. That lifestyle had much to recommend it. But on balance, I do feel that this new way -- a way that allows for, say, visitors -- will be an improvement.

Farewell, old, cluttered me! I mourn, and I organize.

5 comments October 18th, 2005

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