We No Longer Have to Guess at Trump’s “Real” Mental State

I logged into Twitter this morning to encounter this article from Raw Story, which interviews Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and one of the authors of the report that seeks to answer the question “Does Trump have adequate mental capacity to perform the tasks of the Presidency?” (Their answer: He does not.)

I did both my law school internships in criminal law, one on each side of the aisle. During the first, I represented several people who, for various reasons, lacked competency; during the second, I worked with an assistant prosecutor whose job was to push back against competency claims at the state mental hospital.

While I couldn’t have recited the criteria Dr. Lee and her co-authors use in the report, they were immediately familiar to me in practice, based on my internship experiences. And when I read the Raw Story article, something else became immediately familiar to me as well.

trump has dementia

Losing My Religion Filter

Trump’s racism, itself, isn’t news. Trump has a history of subtle racism, including but not limited to his thirty years of accusing the Central Park 5 of rape, despite DNA evidence exonerating them.

But, until the last few years, the keyword there has been subtle. Trump hasn’t expressed that racism in a way that would raise eyebrows in polite company (in fact, raising one’s eyebrow would be seen as the impolite thing to do). He hasn’t, historically, attacked in the way he has now attacked Reps. Omar, Pressley, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez.

The racism has always been there. It’s just louder now. Why?

I Submit: The reason Trump’s racism is now laid bare is because that’s what dementia does.

Dr. Lee doesn’t attempt to diagnose Trump with dementia. In fact, she and her co-authors are very clear that they can’t diagnose Trump without seeing Trump in person.

Nevertheless, the question “Does Trump have dementia?” has been discussed in several venues (I find Tom Joseph’s particularly persuasive – here’s just one part of it).

And while I’m not a doctor, I am someone who has (a) worked with adults who lacked mental capacity and (b) had multiple grandparents with dementia. I can’t diagnose Trump or anyone else, but I can talk about what I see.

Here’s what I see.

Dementia Sucks

For my grandparents, as with most dementia patients, dementia was a gradual slide. They didn’t turn incoherent all at once; the word salad built up over time. For a period of several months to several years, the word salad was sufficiently related to current events that one could pretend it was an actual conversation.

This, in hindsight, was also the point at which personalities began to change – or rather, to be laid bare.

Everyone has a certain category in their heads of things they think and feel, but that they don’t feel it’s proper to say. Typically, these things are “improper” because they conflict with the person’s self-image, the image others have of them, or both. They don’t fit with the role the person plays in their family, society, or the greater world.

Saying these things would rock the boat. It would provoke comments like “That’s just not like you!” It would erode trust. So we don’t say them. Even if the things are totally innocuous.

Before dementia makes you forget those things, though, it makes you forget why you decided they were off-limits.

For one of my grandmothers, this meant an abrupt change from Sweet Little Old Lady Who Uncomplainingly Endures Everything Including the Depression to torrents of invective about what a whore Mabel down the street was for using six eggs in her meringue and self-pity about how lonely she was now that childhood friend Beatrice (d. 1965) had stopped talking to her for Mean Girl reasons.

For my grandfather, it meant a change from Stalwart Businessman Community Leader Yes I Have Always Been This Rich Real Men Don’t Cry to telling me stories about his boyhood fishing in the Ozarks and how proud he is of me and my psychology degree.

(N.b. I don’t have a psychology degree. I suspect he always wanted one.)

At both those times, I realized that I no longer had to guess at what either grandparent was “really” thinking. I knew. They were telling me. Because they had forgotten not to.

We’re at the same point with Trump.

Trump has gone from genteel rich racist to bloviating invective racist because that part of his brain that used to tell him that Bloviating Racist was incompatible with his image is now gone.

He hasn’t forgotten the racism, any more than my grandfather had forgotten how it felt to catch his first catfish or my grandmother had forgotten how much it hurt to be cut by Beatrice for no reason. He has forgotten what his personal reason was not to talk about it.

He has forgotten that he ever had a reason not to talk about it.

Weirdly Trustworthy

I hesitate to say Trump is more reliable now than he was 20 years ago. Lacking capacity brings with it an instability with memory and reality, and Trump in particular has succumbed many times in the public eye to a reality dictated by his feelings, rather than facts. (Just ask our intelligence agencies.)

But there is a certain reliability in the emotions he expresses now, which is to say that they’re no longer filtered through his own constructed self-image or others’ image of him. He does still have an ego; in fact, that ego is perhaps even more easily bruised now, because he no longer has the protection afforded by playing the role of Rich Man Above Your Nonsense (a role which, arguably, his tiny hands never fully grasped in the first place). But he doesn’t play a role anymore.

He can’t. He’s forgotten that there was a role.

What we see from Trump now is pure, unadulterated Trump. We’re seeing what Trump has thought and felt on the down-low for decades now.

In the past, Trump was a highkey racist playing a lowkey racist in public. Now, he’s just a highkey racist, because he’s forgotten how to be an actor.

I am not looking forward to finding out what else Trump downplayed back when he still knew how to act.

 

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How to Recover From Burnout

I’ve seen several tweets this past month about the lack of resources on recovering from burnout.

“Everyone talks about how to avoid it,” one Twitterer noted, “but nobody talks about what to do once you’re already there.”

This strikes me as an unforgivable gap in available knowledge. In the interests of doing what I can to fix that, here’s what I’ve done to recover after I went down in flames in the fall of 2009.

How to Recover From Burnout

Prologue: Some Background

I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any sort of mental health professional. I strongly recommend finding one or more people in this field whom you trust and working with them as part of the recovery process if you possibly can.

I am, however, a person who was hospitalized for burnout three times before the age of 30 and once more at age 33. I’ve been told by several doctors that if I did not slow down, I would die. I am addicted to work.

So here’s what worked for me. It may not work for everyone.

First: Know Thyself

A lot of people get into the burnout zone because we don’t see what’s happening to us until we’re burned out.

I don’t say that to assign blame. There are a lot of real and compelling reasons we don’t see it. We have bills to pay. We have families to support. We really believe that if we just work hard enough, we’ll reach the state of Successful Adulting(TM). Often, we want to believe that we can fix problems in our lives by working harder, because working harder is a thing we can actually control.

So we don’t look too hard at whether the work we’re doing is sustainable. That’s not a fault, but it becomes a responsibility.

The first step to reversing the burnout course is to see it for what it is.

Do This:

  • Make a list of all the stuff you actually do in a day. All of it. If you’re so fried you spent five hours lying in bed listening to Spotify, write that down. This is not the time to judge whether something was sufficiently “productive” to “count”; this is the time to note where it is you actually are.
  • Make a list of all the stuff you’re not doing, but is worrying you. That bill you haven’t paid in three months. The mystery Tupperware in the fridge that has learned seven languages and is currently the mayor of South Bend. Your chronically disorganized laundry pile. The fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday – again. Again, this is not the time to judge; it’s the time to get all that stuff out of your head.

This is often an uncomfortable experience. You might start feeling angry or panicky. You may blame yourself for having “wasted” a bunch of time or feel the need to get up and do one or more of the things on the list. Strong negative reactions are normal and okay (although they, by definition, do not feel okay at the time).

As much as you can, be present with those feelings. Breathing exercises can help you manage the load (there are guided tutorials on YouTube and in apps like Headspace), too. If you need to walk away from the list and come back later, do that.

Remember, you are in a tough situation that is not your fault but is your responsibility. That might feel unfair as fuck. It is. But you don’t have to let it stay that way.

Second: Increase Friction

I recently wrote a piece (which I will link here once it’s live) on the negative effects of frictionless UX online. The instant and often passive way we can fill our brains with inputs by scrolling Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or by letting YouTube or Netflix autoplay whatever’s next, means that we’re filling our brains in a way that we as a species have never really been able to do.

For example: My husband rolls out of bed at about 6:30 am in order to be out the door at 7:00 am and fully awake and engaged with teenagers by 7:20 am.

The first thing he does when he gets up is to grab his phone and stagger to the toilet, where he scrolls through his email and messages and starts to plan his day. In the first five minutes, he reads and deals with as many as fifty different bits of information.

We’re both old enough to remember the days of yore before ubiquitous Internet and social media, in which that kind of information load wouldn’t have been possible. Now it’s not only possible, it’s expected: My husband says there’s no way he could possibly be ready for his job if he didn’t do it each morning. He’s expected to walk into work knowing all the stuff people sent him after he left the evening before.

This is a “frictionless” world for information. And I’m convinced it is a major factor in our burnout.

Do This:

  • Pay attention to where your information inputs have gotten frictionless. Are you zoning out after dinner and scrolling Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr for hours on end (whether or not you “should” be doing something else?) How often does Netflix stop to ask you if you’re still alive?
  • Make it harder for other people’s content to reach you. Delete one or more social media apps, or turn off push notifications, or bury them somewhere in your phone. Mute or unfollow contacts you don’t interact with much or that you see often enough in real life that you don’t need to keep up with them online as well. Do this in stages, starting with the ones you use/need to see least. The goal is to give yourself greater control over what information actually reaches your brain.
  • Replace with content you really want to consume. Instead of scrolling Twitter in the morning, read one or two blogs you love. Subscribe to a fiction magazine or journal: it’s a great way to get short, entertaining reads in your favorite genre, especially if your brain isn’t handling full-length stories yet. Or just consume the “content” of less damn noise in your life.

The goal is to carve out space for your brain. It’s not always easy, especially if (like me) you developed the habit of scrolling endlessly through Pinterest in order to avoid both doing what you needed to do and realizing how burned out you are.

There are good reasons for doing this, though. Even Facebook has admitted that too much passive scrolling causes worse moods. And at least one study found that limiting social media reduced loneliness and depression, at least in undergrads.

But That’s My Social Circle!

For a lot of folks, especially disabled folks, social media is a lifeline to the rest of the world. Even if you still spend a lot of time on social media, fight to increase friction where you can. Curate your lists, and spend more time engaging (the Facebook study claims that moods improve when people like and comment instead of just scrolling).

The goal is to put yourself in control of the information that is currently overloading your brain. To do that, you’ll need to change your relationship with your sources of information.

Third: Commit to Existence

Increasing information friction in your life helps carve out space and free time. Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout. 

Burnout occurs because the pace at which we attempt to do things isn’t sustainable. We don’t restore the energy we use day after day. Instead, we eat into our reserves – until we don’t have reserves anymore.

Do This:

  • Get a blank calendar. Or play on hardcore mode and delete everything in your existing calendar.
  • Schedule the following four priorities: sleep, meals, movement, and relaxation. The last category can include play, fun hobbies, religious/spiritual pursuits, or anything else that has helped you feel more like yourself in the past. Schedule all four separately. “Sleep” and “relaxation” are not the same category. Don’t assume you can both eat and go for a walk at the same time.
  • Schedule everything else around these four priorities. Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living.
  • Reevaluate those lists. If there are things on your “things I should be doing” list that you can’t fit in the schedule, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do them. Not if they didn’t get done – if you didn’t do them. Delegate or let them go as necessary.

I’ll repeat this too, because it’s important: Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living. 

Fourth: Fuck You, Pay Me

In the process of reevaluating those lists, notice how many things you’ve agreed to do, or have been handed to you, or that you think you should do, that you aren’t getting paid to do.

I don’t just mean pay in terms of cold hard cash, although that’s certainly important in order to afford things like food and a safe place to sleep. I also mean “pay” in terms of mental and emotional energy and support.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Your mental and emotional energies work in some ways like a bank account. If you loan out too much of them without getting reapid or receiving interest, eventually the bank goes bust. And if you’re burned out, your bank is going bust.

One of the keys to reversing burnout and avoiding relapse is to resolutely refuse to do things for which you do not get paid.

Do This:

Look at your lists from the first step. For each item on the list, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I get out of doing this? For work, the answer might be “a paycheck.” For cooking, “a hot meal.” For doing laundry, “clean underwear.” For picking up the yard, “So that Mrs. Nosy next door doesn’t call the ordinance guy on me again.” And so on.
  2. Does what I get from doing this adequately compensate me for the energies I expend in doing it? Only you can answer this question for yourself, because only you can decide how much energy it takes you to do something and whether you’re happy with what you get in return.

Use these two questions to evaluate things you do with your time. If you’re not satisfied with the answers to both questions, reconsider whether you need to do the thing. Maybe you can just stop doing it altogether. Maybe there’s an alternative way to do it, or to get it done, that makes you feel more satisfied with the return on your investment.

The goal is never to invest physical, mental, emotional or spiritual energy in anything that does not adequately compensate you for doing so. I call this the “fuck you, pay me” attitude. If it doesn’t pay you, don’t do it.

In some cases, you may need to take a few steps to see where the payment is. For instance, driving your kids to sports practice may not seem to compensate you at all; but having happy, healthy kids who feel supported may be extremely valuable. (Of course, if you’re driving kids to practices they don’t even want to attend, it may be time to ask them whether they’re happy with what they get from this activity.)

Take Note: If the answer to the first question is “nothing” or “nothing that actually matters to me,” don’t even bother with the second question. Strike the thing off your list. It’s a vampire. Revoke its invitation into your physical or mental space and never invite it in again.

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What if I just never had to deal with this ever again?” If your feeling is one of overwhelming relief, it’s time to eliminate the thing or find another way to do it.

Fifth: Forget Quick Fixes

If you’re hoping you can do the above four steps and fix your burnout overnight, I have bad news.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t resolve overnight. Burnout is the result of a longstanding pattern of non-sustainable behavior. While these steps can help you redirect yourself onto a more sustainable path, you still have two major factors to contend with:

  1. You’re going to need time to recover what you’ve already lost, and
  2. You’re going to have to guard against relapse – probably for the rest of your life.

I had my last hospital stay in 2015. While I was there, my psychologist and I worked hard on creating a plan to prevent relapse. I’ve adhered to that plan, but it takes conscious effort every day. And I’m still finding ways to improve it; for instance, I recently deleted every social media app I have except for Twitter, which I buried in a folder on my phone so that accessing it has to be a deliberate decision.

A Note on Selfishness

It’s very hard to maintain recovery from burnout if you’re a naturally giving type. Finding a sustainable way to live your life can feel very much like devolving to a state of utter selfishness.

In fact, the opposite is true. Burn out for long enough, and you’ll end up permanently disabled, if not dead. I’m considerably more disabled than I would have been if I had started dealing with my burnout symptoms in 2004, when I first noticed them.

By focusing on my sustainability first, however, I’ve become much more able to keep the commitments I do make. I’m more reliable, because I make sure I have the energy to do things before I agree to do them. And while I’m more disabled than I was in 2004, I am far less disabled than I was in 2009 or 2014.

Burnout is one of those situations in which selfishness is a necessity and a good. If you do not protect your basic needs, you will have nothing left to give anyone – ever.


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Autistic Community, Crabs and the State of My Cardiovascular Health

A friend of mine recently posted a tongue-in-cheek list of the various stages of autistic advocacy. The penultimate stage was “I am avoiding my own community for the sake of my cardiovascular health.”

In my case, it’s funny because it’s true.

I made the decisions to step away from the autistic activist community about a year ago. In that time, I’ve gained some perspective on why I made that choice – and why the number of us avoiding our own community for health reasons keeps increasing.

crabs a year later

1. Teaching 101 classes is exhausting.

My friend’s tongue-in-cheek first stage was utter outrage at regularly recurring events – in this case, at the autistic character cast as a puppet in the stage play All in a Row. A fair number of the responses to said puppet can be summarized as “Nothing this outrageous has happened to us in the history of humanity!”

It has, of course. Dehumanizing portrayals of autistic people in media are ancient hat. They’ve been deconstructed over and over again by members of the community and by allies.

When I started writing on autism, I did so optimistically and enthusiastically. Here was a field in which so much work hadn’t been done, and I was convinced that my doing it would lend itself to genuine progress.

I overestimated how quickly change occurs. But I also overestimated the extent to which my own community would orient itself to its own body of work.

Today, there are dozens of masterposts on nearly every autism-related topic imaginable. A Google search for “autism masterpost” turns up literally dozens, on topics ranging from autistic vocabulary to ABA to how to write fictional autistic characters.

I appreciate people who donate their time and effort to compiling resources. Masterposts are a lot of work. Academic journal articles are a lot of work. In-depth discussions of any topic are work. I know, I’ve written them.

I am not a fan of repeated 101 requests from folks who clearly haven’t Googled – they just perceive me standing there and demand I answer their questions. And it happens a lot.

I have trouble faulting neurotypical people for it anymore when the autistic community has been an equal source of culprits.

2. Trauma is a reason but not an excuse.

Autistic people are, on the whole, a traumatized bunch – and for good reason. We’re born into a world that isn’t designed for our neurology (in fact, it often seems designed to exacerbate our discomfort), and we’re expected to figure out how to survive in it, often while being “treated” with methods that directly impair our survival skills.

So when we first find Autistic community, our trauma often spills over. Which makes sense! For the first time in our lives, we’re surrounded by people who get it! Who have been through similarly traumatizing experiences! Who can affirm that yes, that was traumatizing and you are not weird, bad, weak or wrong for experiencing it as traumatic!

…The problem, which not all autistic people manage to avoid, is that having that trauma affirmed can feel like sufficient reason to avoid the hard work of processing it.

The result are members of the community who do things like:

  • Demand that others mediate their trauma. Seeking help once or twice in a particularly bad situation isn’t a problem; it’s the folks who demand others pay attention to their problems multiple times a day.
  • Maintain that they’re constantly the target of persecution – a stance that gets even more damaging once the person starts accumulating flying monkeys.
  • Develop a sense of entitlement to autistic-run spaces, resources and platforms.

The longer one processes one’s own trauma, the more clearly these patterns emerge, and the easier it becomes to distinguish people who are working on their demons and people who aren’t. It’s easier to see the cost in fucks that the latter impose on the community as a whole – and to go bankrupt.

Trauma explains a lot of these approaches and attitudes. But it does not excuse them.

3. It only took a few people to ruin me for the rest of you.

There’s a version of the trauma/persecution problem that leads to a profound sense of entitlement to autistic-run spaces, resources, and platforms. The rest of the world is against “us” but these things are “us,” so why can’t I just take them? It’s for the good of the community!

I have seen this dynamic play out several times in the handful of years I’ve occupied Autistic spaces.

I’ve seen autistic students blithely poach the work of autistic scholars and pass it off as their own.

I’ve had to file C&Ds as autistic bloggers have reprinted my writing wholesale on their blogs, then dragged me for having the audacity to ask them to stop profiting off my work – or even for asking to be cited as its author.

I’ve seen autistic authors and artists leave the community entirely, pulling all their own work from publication, after being worked to the point of total disability by another autistic person who had an idea but demanded everybody else put in the effort to realize it.

I’ve been publicly dragged by an autistic activist, along with everyone else at Autonomous Press, based on mere hearsay that the activist’s work might not be automatically accepted for publication, and I’ve seen dozens of other community members take that activist’s side without even asking for clarification.

I’ve had autistic writers throw fits in my AutPress email at the news that we do not, in fact, auto-publish your work because you tell us you’re autistic.

There is a small but incredibly loud contingent of the Autistic community that treats the work of other autistic people as theirs for the taking. But when we’re talking about such labor-intensive tasks as writing academic articles, maintaining a blog, or starting an entire publishing company, it only takes a few of these people to burn out and destroy the very resources they’re trying to leverage.

4. Boundaries remain a problem.

Building culture is an exhilarating thing. But without boundaries, culture-building can easily suck you dry. And the same people who insist that your boundaries are hurting them will tell you your inevitable collapse was all your fault for not having boundaries in the first place.

This is the lesson on boundaries a lot of autistic people grew up hearing, especially if we were subjected to ABA or equivalent “therapy.” When you learn very early in life, upon threat of survival, that you are not allowed to have boundaries, acting as if you have none is a very difficult behavior to uproot. For many autistic people, it’s made worse by our own overweening empathy. We want to help, and we have never been taught how to do so without killing ourselves.

Unhealthy behaviors around boundaries are rife in the Autistic community. They’re difficult to uproot. They keep reasserting themselves in different forms throughout our lives without a consistent and dedicated effort to their eradication. And mental health treatment being what it is(n’t), many of us never learn effective tools to combat them.

Boundaries are a huge deal in the Autistic community precisely because we don’t have enough of them. We have a lot of people without them, a lot who drop them because “I found my people so I don’t need boundaries!”, and many who ignore them out of a desire to help, save and protect others from the same trauma they themselves suffered.

As a result, having boundaries can open one up to excoriation in Autistic spaces. I’ve been rebuked for it more than once. How dare I not drop everything and help (with a project, with trauma, with repeating for the 500th time to some parent on Facebook that vaccines do not cause autism) right now (and always, always for free)?! You’re just as bad as the neurotypicals!

There’s a reason the final stage of autistic activism is “lol puppetize me already, maybe I’ll find the energy to fight this shit with a hand up my ass.”

There are extraordinary people in the autistic community. I’ve found lifelong friends, family, colleagues and mentors here. But those relationships only grow when everyone involved in them maintains a commitment to listening, learning, growth, balance, and boundaries.

Without them, this community will continue to burn out its own members, and both its activism and its culture will suffer.

You Asked, I Answered: Questions From My Blog Search Terms

Every so often, I like to look at the search terms that bring people to this site. And sometimes, I suspect that my blog did not in fact answer the searcher’s question.

So, as a public service, here are answers to questions from the search terms real people used to find my actual blog.

questions from google

How much would a 100 year old Girl Scout handbook be worth?

In the year of our Lord 2019, there actually aren’t any Girl Scout handbooks that are exactly 100 years old. How Girls Can Help Their Country, the first-ever handbook, was published between 1913 and 1917, making it more than a century old at this point. The next one, Scouting for Girls, didn’t come out till 1920.

Copies of How Girls Can Help Their Country typically sell for between $25 and $100. If your copy is in extremely good shape or it’s one of the unusual ones, like the 1916 fourth edition with the price list inside or the 1913 second edition of which only 500 were ever printed, you may be able to get more money for it from the right collector.

There is a version of Scouting for Girls that was adapted from How Girls Can Help Their Country. It has only 257 pages (the 1920 edition has 557) and a copyright date of 1918. The only copy currently known to exist is in the GSUSA archives, but there’s a dispute among historians right now as to whether or how many more were published. If you have one of these, it’s probably worth a fortune to the right collector.

Does anyone else not like Les Miserables?

My post on why I hate Les Miserables is the most consistently popular piece on this blog, which makes me think I should hate things more often.

To clarify: I actually enjoyed reading Les Miserables the novel by Victor Hugo very much. It’s the popular stage/screen adaptation that makes me want to throw things.

What is inappropriate for school readers?

Like pornography, we generally know it when we see it.

I, personally, want to see school readers quit normalizing the heterosexual agenda. My kids brought home one of those “Dick and Jane” books the other day, and there were Dick and Jane’s parents, a mom and a dad, just cavorting around on the page like we don’t all know about their perverted lifestyle. I mean, Baby Sally is right there. We know what you do when the kids are asleep, you sickos.

[n.b. I do not have children.]

Why do I attract narcissist friends?

I’m not a psychologist, and I’m definitely not your psychologist, person who made this Google search and somehow wound up on my blog. So take my opinion with a grain of salt, which is:

The good news is that it’s probably not because you are a narcissist. The bad news is that it probably is because you, for whatever reason, don’t communicate clear boundaries or a certain intolerance for bullshit.

Your narcissist friends use you to boost their own egos because you let them. Why you let them is something only you (maybe with the help of a trustworthy therapist) can figure out.

What does Scout value in the start of the book?

This is almost certainly an attempt to do To Kill a Mockingbird homework without actually having to read the novel, so I apologize to whichever Googler landed on my blog, wherein I do not talk about To Kill a Mockingbird even once that I know of.

The answer to your question is “not a whole lot beyond herself and her interests,” which is pretty normal for a seven year old.

What do inappropriate books?

I’m still pondering this one. What do inappropriate books, indeed?

How does Charlaine Harris write so frankly about sex when she has kids?

To offer the kind of details Charlaine Harris does about sex, you have to have had sex at least once. Having children is a really good indicator that you have had sex at least as many times as you have children (barring twins, etc).

Also, I’m presuming that Harris doesn’t let her kids read her books until her kids are able to understand that sex is an extremely common and even healthy part of adult human relationships. Kind of like how I didn’t give my oldest niece a copy of my first book until I thought she could handle the violence in it.

Do children find being inappropriate good?

Children generally do not know what constitutes being “inappropriate.” They are children.

“Inappropriate” is a cultural construct. It’s something we learn from older humans around us and internalize (or don’t) as we grow. When children are being “inappropriate,” they’re usually just doing a thing, and they don’t yet have the internal wiring both to understand that other humans are bothered by the thing and that they can and should curb their impulse to do that thing.

Kids don’t find “being inappropriate” either good or bad. They’re exploring and trying stuff. They’re hardwired to do that. It is extremely human.


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Let’s Talk KonMari #5: ‘My Battery Is Low and It’s Getting Dark’

(Part 5 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: ClothingBooksPapers, Komono, Storage & Cleaning.)

The recent death of the Mars rover Opportunity seems like a particularly fortuitous time to talk about our attachment to material objects.

konmari5NET

How and Why We Love Things

Humans develop emotional attachments to material objects. We start young; according to Christian Jarrett, humans as young as two understand the concept of “mine.” Three to six year olds already connect with “my” stuffed animal in a way that they do not with an exact copy of that stuffed animal – and they even express horror at the thought that they might receive the copy rather than the original.

I’ll Love You Forever

This early attachment to things travels with us throughout our lives, as well. For instance, as a young child, my high school boyfriend had a doll called Marvin. He loved Marvin. Marvin was his constant companion, and after a few years, Marvin started showing the wear and tear you’d expect a soft toy to suffer from accompanying a young boy on his every adventure.

So my boyfriend’s mom sent Marvin to the doctor, promising “he’ll be home for Christmas.” On Christmas morning, Marvin reappeared under the tree, shiny and clean.

It wasn’t until my boyfriend was seventeen that his mother revealed the twist: the Marvin who reappeared on Christmas day wasn’t the original Marvin. He was a new Marvin, gifted from a family friend whose own toddler had been terrified of the toy.

My boyfriend’s mother was proud of having pulled this switcharoo, but my boyfriend was crushed. For days. And he hadn’t played with Marvin for about fifteen years at that point. In fact, I’m not sure Marvin was even in the house anymore.

Why My Marvin?

Some of this is the result of the “endowment effect,” in which we place more value on things we perceive as “ours.” But that value is multifaceted, and it doesn’t merely have to do with financial value. It’s also value created by the perception that the object is an extension of the self.

The fact that we tend to anthropomorphize our things adds to our sense of value, relationship and identity. The manufacturers of the Roomba, for instance, report that when their Roomba breaks down, many owners request that the company fix the device and send it back. They don’t want a new Roomba – they want their Roomba.

Seeing objects as a type of person means that we can extend our emotional bubble to include them even when they aren’t perceived as “ours.” As Dan Broadbent notes, one of the things that made it so easy to cry for Opportunity was that NASA anthropomorphizes spacecraft for us. We can follow craft like Curiosity on Twitter like they’re real people – and many of us have since the moment these spacecraft started tweeting.

“Why didn’t NASA try to revive Opportunity?” was a refrain I saw online several times after the news that the rover had gone dark. The answer, of course, is that they did. They tried for eight months and 1,000 unanswered wake-up messages. And when they accepted that Opportunity wasn’t ever going to answer again, they said goodbye by playing her a love song.

And thousands of us cried, because even though she’s a 400-pound hunk of steel and tech on another planet, we think of Opportunity as a being, not a tool.

If a Mars rover provokes emotions that intense, imagine trying to discard long-held personal items in your own home.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

Marie Kondo recommends leaving the “sentimental items” category for last, on the theory that once we start sorting these items, we’ll be sufficiently sensitive to joy to make it easier to go through them.

Specifically, I think, we get more sensitive to the difference between an object that sparks joy here and now, in the present, as a thing that exists in our lives, and an object that evokes memories that spark joy but that doesn’t itself, in the present, spark joy.

Discerning the difference is essential to discarding objects, and it reaches its peak in dealing with sentimental objects.

I, for instance, have always found myself particularly susceptible to the endowment effect. For me, every object becomes sentimental if I’ve owned it long enough. Objects I don’t even own become sentimental if I see them as part of my daily life long enough. “Long enough” has a life of its own; it can be anywhere from several years to a matter of minutes, depending on how intensely the objects sparked joy when I first encountered it. (I’ve developed an endowment-effect attachment to items I found in stores before I even reached the register.)

On top of that, I’ve also spent large parts of my life using objects not only to mediate my identity, but to reshape it – and, by doing so, to reshape my personal history.

When the Past Sucks

Some people deal with shitty pasts by getting rid of everything that reminds them of those times. I dealt with mine by constantly trying to rearrange its artifacts.

I’ve been obsessed with photo albums and scrapbooking since I was a child. I regularly kept boxes upon boxes of photos, ticket stubs, report cards, newspaper clippings, stickers, candy wrappers, flyers, greeting cards, luggage tags, you name it. And I have spent hundreds of hours of my life arranging and rearranging these things in scrapbooks, pulling them out, starting over, never satisfied with what I had created and never able to keep up with the pile of things intended to go into those books.

Until I KonMari’ed that pile, however, I didn’t understand why I scrapbooked so intensely. I’ve never been interested in “scrapbooking” the popular hobby: I don’t ever volunteer to do scrapbooks for groups or teams I’m part of, I’m not interested in seeing other people’s scrapbooks, and and scrapbooking supply stores just make me feel tired.

My relationship to my scrapbooks was a deeply private obsession. It was a way to reorganize my past, to give myself the non-abusive childhood I have always so desperately wanted to have. If I could rearrange all these old little bits of paper just right, I would retroactively become the person that my survival had depended on my pretending to be.

This obsession got particularly bad when it came to photographs. I hoarded old photographs like a dragon hoards gold. I spent hours looking at them, trying to rewrite my own memories, trying to convince myself that I saw happiness in those photos and that that Kodak moment was what had really taken place.

…This kind of constant mental editing is exhausting, not to mention an Olympian feat of self-gaslighting.

When I threw those photos out, however, I cried. I cried because I had had to give up one of the most enduring projects of my life: my attempt to rewrite history, and thus to re-form myself, based on nothing more than sheer will.

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(Pictured: Two once-full photo albums and a box of photos.)

For the Record….

…I can’t tell you whether going through your sentimental objects will provoke a similar reaction. Mine comes from a nightmarish childhood; it’s the unearthing of a lot of outdated ways of attempting to salvage some part of myself in the face of a world that did its level best to turn me into someone else.

Mine is also another step on a years-long journey through therapy. These aren’t realizations I could have had a year ago, and I’ve been working on my closet full of demons a lot longer than that. We have the realizations about ourselves that we’re ready to have.

Post-tidying, my sentimental stuff is under much better control. I still have a scrapbook of sorts:

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It’s organized chronologically, and it’s a combination of various awards, childhood artwork, letters from loved ones that were particularly meaningful, and so on. It also contains the photos that aren’t going on our walls.

I also sorted through my box of non-flat childhood keepsake items:

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This one was particularly interesting because I had managed to stuff that box with items that I kept not because they sparked joy, but because the anxiety associated with getting rid of them was so high I couldn’t mediate it. And the anxiety items – all of them – were things family members had given me as a way of keeping me attached to our shared heritage of generational toxicity.

In Spark Joy, Kondo says that if you’re having trouble saying goodbye to an object even though you know it doesn’t spark joy, try tossing a few handfuls of salt into the bag to settle the spirits.

I’m not a practitioner of Shinto by any means, and I’m not even particularly religious, but whipping a few handfuls of kosher salt into the trash bags in this photo worked. I was able to carry them to the bin with a sense of peace I haven’t experienced…well, ever.

I don’t know if it settles any other kind of spirit, but it sure settled mine.

I also added a feature to my writing space of which I am particularly proud:

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Stuffed animals are perhaps the biggest victory of my childhood. My mother was constantly deciding by fiat when I had “outgrown” them and trying to dispose of them accordingly, and I was constantly rescuing them and buying new ones. That Popple is the result of the only fight of my childhood that I won.

For years, as an adult, I stored my stuffed animals in a plastic bin in the basement, believing that the person I was supposed to be wasn’t supposed to have them but too in love with them to simply throw them out.

On Kondo’s advice, they now live on this shelf, which is right next to my desk. I can look up and see them there, cheering me on, whenever I’m writing.

(The mother who fought me about owning stuffed animals, by the way, is the same woman who rescued her beloved stuffed animal Tigger from the trash on a half-dozen occasions when her own mother tried to unilaterally dispose of him. I think this is what they mean when they say you can either learn from the mistakes of the past or repeat them.)

Next time: Storage and Cleaning.

 

Let’s Talk KonMari #4: Small Potatoes

(Part 4 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: ClothingBooks, Papers, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)

After clothing, books and papers, Marie Kondo recommends tackling the “komono” (小物).

The name means “little things” and repeatedly gets translated as “miscellany” for KonMari purposes, but the category itself is huge. It’s pretty much every item in your house that isn’t clothing, books or paperwork and that exists there for practical (as opposed to sentimental) reasons.

For this reason, komono is often the category people get stuck on the most, as in this Reddit thread. That’s if they don’t throw out the KonMari method altogether on the theory that “everything else” shouldn’t be a damn tidying category in the first place.

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A Big Pile of Small Potatoes

I’ve never had the honor of being invited into a Japanese home, so I can’t begin to speak for how they’re organized or what they contain. In the US, however, komono is by far the largest category in the house.

It’s even larger when the house’s residents aren’t fashionistas or bookworms. A Scholastic study estimated that 61 percent of low-income US families have zero books in the house. Zero.

Scholastic, of course, is concerned about the effect of a bookless home on children’s early language and literacy development. In the KonMari context, it’s more likely to inflate the amount of komono to be sorted through. Books take up space, and they occupy our time. A house with no books is likely to have something else in that space that takes up its occupants’ time.

Does Your Spatula Spark Joy?

Komono is overwhelmingly stuff we keep for practical purposes. It’s not personally chosen as an expression of identity (clothes), as a means to shape our identity (books), because we have adult obligations to others (papers), or because we have feelings (sentimental objects). It’s there to do the heavy lifting of keeping us alive.

As such, it poses two challenges that most of the other KonMari categories do not. First, it’s hard to imagine a lot of these things sparking joy. Second, because we view them as workhorses, we don’t see the ways in which these objects mediate our identities, particularly our class identities.

“Praise it to the Hilt”

Some of the earliest KonMari-related jokes I saw on social media had to do with tossing out our washing machines or vacuum cleaners because they don’t “spark joy.” It’s tough to see a roll of paper towels warming our hearts, especially when we think about it in the abstract.

In Spark Joy, Kondo writes, “If you come across komono that don’t particularly spark joy, try praising them to the hilt.”

Praising our material possessions, like thanking them, is a huge sticking point for Westerners who criticize Kondo’s methods – and it’s also why many commenters, like Jessica Roy in the LA Times, have pointed out the racial element of this criticism.

Kondo recommends thanks and praise because the KonMari method embraces animism as a given. The Shinto concept of everything, even individual grains of rice, having a god/soul/divine essence (I really have no idea which, whether or how to translate “kami” here) is a natural underpinning of Kondo’s approach.

It’s also, to most of us in the US, very, very weird.

Shinto isn’t the only world religion to embrace the concept of material objects sharing in the divine essence. A Muslim teaching explains that every inanimate “thing” in the world, down to individual blades of grass or grains of sand, is constantly engaged in praising its Creator. Psalm 150:6 says “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” with the definition of “breath” capacious enough to encompass ideas like spirit, soul, or the imprint of Divine creation as well as literal respiration.

For US material culture, however, the idea that individual objects might have personalities, spirits, or some other “being”ness we might recognize or respect is an affront to the ways we perform class success.

Who Is the Master Here?

Class status is frequently measured through performances of commanding and controlling others, and in the middle class, performances of status are most often performed through material objects. This is the driver behind our parents’ “keeping up with the Joneses” and our participation in both acquiring objects and divesting ourselves from them as a form of virtue signaling.

One of the ways to define class status in the US is by examining a person’s relationship to and use of stuff. The middle class embraces stuff both as a way to exercise the command and control that are usually exercised upon them by the capitalist class and as a way to signal their relative “middleness.”

I’ve certainly played this game in the past. In college I owned a knockoff Gucci clutch that I damn well knew was a knockoff, but I still preened when other people didn’t. Personal possessions I don’t even like, such as the bottle of Chanel no. 5 I inherited from my grandmother, have nevertheless held places of reverence among my personal things for years. They’re symbols of Status, of the better (and richer) me I longed to be.

The middle class even uses material things to moralize themselves into a position “above” the poor, kvetching about “poor people” who own iPhones or who drive dependable cars. Using material goods to signify status is a luxury the middle class believes should be reserved for the middle class.

“If I were poor, I would eat lentils,” say middle-classers, conveniently dodging the question “Okay, but if lentils would make you richer, why don’t you eat them now?”

The upper classes don’t need to play this game, and when they do, it is a dead giveaway of a failure to shed middle-class sensibilities despite an increase in material wealth. Donald Trump is the classic example: the poor (or middle-class) person’s conception of how a rich person should live, with gilded apartments, ketchupy steak and excessive golfing.

In fact, there’s only a certain amount of money one can spend on material comforts before all of one’s needs are luxuriously met. When money is invested in material displays beyond this point, it ends up being spent on things that are superfluous by any standard, like a tenth yacht.

This is why minimalism has become a method of signaling higher class status, rather than lower. “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and its telling that its fan base is clusetered in the well-off middle class,” says Stephanie Land in a 2016 NYT Opinion piece. “For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.”

Thanking the Help

Because the middle class allays its class anxiety (and the middles have more than everyone else combined) via material things, and because that allaying has much to do with exercising the command and control that are otherwise exercised against the middles, the class that constitutes the vast majority of KonMari consumers is also the class least interested in hearing that we are interdependent with our things.

Being middle class is about having “earned” the luxury of commanding our things: of buying things “just because,” of discarding things without a thought, of spending a premium for “designer” or “gourmet” options. Interdependence with things – the state of needing practical objects for practical purposes – is seen as lower-class. You need lentils; you earn steak.

So when Marie Kondo rolls in and suggests that our things might have feelings about how we treat them, we respond with all the indignation of Ebenezer Scrooge recommending that the poor die “and decrease the surplus population.” How dare you suggest that my purse or shoes deserve some consideration for their hard work? They’re here to serve me! That’s what I pay (for) them for!

This is, of course, exactly the attitude of the shareholder class toward the laboring class, and nobody in the latter group likes it when this attitude is directed at them – so we, in turn, take it out on our material possessions.

Kondo’s animism suggests an alternative path, in which we learn to cooperate with the material objects that share our living space rather than to command or control them. It’s a much kinder approach, and it’s also one that smacks of collectivism. Suspicious stuff for the country that claimed materialism won the Cold War.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

One of the weirdest upper-middle virtue-signaling experiences I’ve had in social media groups about KonMari is meeting the subculture of people who are using the method to one-up Sharon from down the block.

It’s the subculture that’s on full display if you search for “KonMari” on Pinterest. In between the infographics about how to go through all your crap are endless photos of perfectly-appointed drawers, kitchens and children’s rooms.

I’ve even encountered people who seem to think “spark joy” is synonymous with “shop like you’re as rich as you think you are.” One story, which I heard secondhand, involved an acquaintance and a friend of hers who stopped by one day while my acquaintance was canning fruit. My acquaintance mentioned proudly that she’d inherited all her canning jars from her mother and grandmother.

The friend’s response to this was scorn: “I threw all mine away and bought new, since I discovered Marie Kondo.”

I’m less interested in the decision to buy new than I am in the scorn itself. Having sorted 90 percent of what we own, I now know that my reaction to someone telling me they’d kept their heirloom canning jars would have been to assume that the heirloom jars made them happy, possibly in a way that new jars never would.

Their happiness isn’t my happiness, but that doesn’t make their happiness any less valid than mine. I suspect that anyone who missed this message also missed the point of the KonMari method.

I also don’t expect that anything that spark joy for me will automatically spark joy for anyone else. For example:

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Most of these are vintage ornaments from the 1940s or thereabouts. I got them from my stepmother, who got rid of them because all they sparked for her was annoyance.

I love them. My only regret is that they’re showing 80 years’ worth of wear, because if I had my way, I’d keep them in their original state forever. I am thrilled to have these in our Christmas decorations, even though I know there are untold numbers of people who look at them and see nothing but junk.

The ornaments aren’t the only thing in the house that would get me a raised eyebrow from anyone for whom household decor is a means of one-upping the neighbors. But the beauty of having done this process is that I don’t care.

People who walk into my house are going to see me. They’re going to see a space full of stuff that brings me joy. If they love me, it’ll spark joy for them too; if not, they are cordially invited to keep on steppin’.

Next time: Sentimental Objects.

 

Let’s Talk KonMari #3: Paperwork Makes Us Adults

(Part 3 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: Clothing, Books, Komono, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)

“My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.”

This line endeared me to Marie Kondo forever.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo says that many of her clients have rococo-level elaborate paper filing systems. These systems, of course, never work (or these people wouldn’t be Kondo’s clients); they merely guarantee that their owners are drowning in paperwork and in the task of filing that paperwork.

There’s something compellingly “adult,” at least in my mind, about a well-ordered filing cabinet in which every incoming piece of paper automatically belongs somewhere. And like a lot of compellingly “adult” things, it’s one I never once managed to achieve, although I’ve spent my entire adult life trying desperately to do so.

Instead, I’ve simply lugged piles of paper from house to house, some of it for twenty years or more, telling myself that “someday” I would get it all filed. Yet the moment I try I get instantly overwhelmed: What goes where? How long do I need to keep something? What if I need this just in case?

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Why Do We Own So Much Paper?

In the US, we tend to generate a lot of paperwork because we’re a legalistic society. Everything comes with a long trail of fine print on it, because we structure so many of our relationships according to contract principles.

We’re pretty cool with this when pressed about it from other angles. We see our court system as the basis of our fundamental freedoms (not without reason), and we’re willing to get into angery Internet conversations about Teh Constitution(TM) at the drop of a hat.

On the other hand, we also think “Kill all the lawyers” was good advice, we’re convinced that tort claims are just “whining” until they happen to us, and we never read the fine print on all that paperwork we get anyway.

And we really don’t read the paperwork we receive. The argument I repeated more than any other during my time at the law firm was “Plaintiffs had a duty to read their insurance policy.” It was rarely a case of incomprehensible jargon making that task futile, either; I handled multiple cases in which the plaintiffs had sued for coverage on outbuildings, which they referred to as “outbuildings” in conversation, when the policy said in bold all caps “THIS POLICY DOES NOT COVER OUTBUILDINGS.”

We do not read the paperwork we are handed. Somehow, reading it isn’t the adult thing to do. Storing it is.

Throw It All Away

I’m a bit surprised at the lack of negative response to Kondo’s “throw it all away” statement. Most of the sources I’ve found online embraced this idea as a relief.

It’s not the relief I find confusing; it’s the fact that “just throw out your paperwork” is seen as an extraordinarily juvenile thing to do, if not an outright dangerous thing to do. Yet no one seems to have pointed that out on the Intertubes as yet.

In Spark Joy, Kondo clarifies that she doesn’t want you to simply gather all the paperwork in the house and chuck it in the bin. Rather, she recommends that you approach the pile with the assumption that “This is all going in the bin anyway, so let’s see what is important to keep.”

To that end, Kondo recommends keeping three categories of papers:

  1. Things you need to handle in some way (bills, invitations, appointment reminders, etc.)
  2. Things you need to keep for a limited period of time (warranties, taxes, etc.)
  3. Things you need to keep indefinitely (birth certificates, passports, vehicle titles, etc.)

Anything that you can deal with on the spot while cleaning out the paperwork, Kondo says, do so. Don’t let that first folder get too big.

The Cull And What I Learned From It

This was my oh-so-adult filing system when I began:

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(I tried with those file folders. I really did.)

Figuring out what I needed to handle was pretty simple: it was mostly all bills. Figuring out what I needed to keep indefinitely was also pretty simple: it was mostly in the fire safe already.

The second category stumped me. A few things with obvious expiration dates, like current insurance dec pages and the last seven years’ worth of taxes, were obvious. But I found myself with a growing pile of things that I couldn’t put a date on, but also wasn’t certain I could simply dispose of.

Here, the concept I started forming in the “books” phase of book-as-object versus book-as-experience, became extremely helpful. I asked myself, “Do I need this piece of paper, or do I just need the information on it?”

If I only needed the information, I scanned the document and then tossed it. Otherwise, I kept it. (I ended up keeping none of them.)

Scanning: Are We Just Moving the Clutter?

One of my friends brought up a worthwhile point during this process: “Am I really tidying, or just moving the mess to my hard drive?”

Kondo provides advice in Spark Joy about how to tidy your digital files (again, focus on what is worth keeping), but I found myself not too concerned about this question as I scanned.

Having access to the information in my paper pile actually does spark joy. Having papers lying around my workspace stresses me out. The scanner and the hard drive are the answer to this particular dilemma.

My external hard drives are relatively well organized. Sure, there’s a ton of stuff on there that’s probably worth deleting, but at least I know where it is and I can quickly distinguish it from stuff I continue to use.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, moving this huge stack of information from paper to digital was a massive relief.

The Other Papers

I’m an academic and a musician, and I’m also nostalgic, so getting through the pile of papers in my filing cabinet wasn’t nearly as daunting as getting through the other pile of papers: portfolios, scrapbooks, research and sheet music.

This used to be three full shelves:

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A large chunk of it was old photocopied sheet music or pieces my husband and I had composed in Noteflight, Sibelius, or (in one case) Forte. Yes, Forte. Do you remember Forte? I sure didn’t.

I scanned all the photocopied sheet music. The not-photocopied stuff went on the shelf.

The bottom two shelves (one of which you can see at the bottom edge of this photo) are full of scrapbooks, photo albums, and my research from graduate school, the last category of which covers an entire shelf and a half.

Confession: I did not actually touch the research during the papers phase of tidying.

At the time, it was because I spent an entire day last year organizing it into binders by topic, sorting it by author’s last name, and typing out little bibliographies in MLA format to go in the front of each binder. And I thought, when I started this process, that I didn’t want to disturb that research.

Now, at the end, I’m rethinking that approach. Especially since I know I haven’t even read quite a few of the articles down there – and, four years out of grad school, I’m probably not going to.

Paper As Object

Here’s a whole lot of paper I kept as-is:

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The smaller journals on the right date back to 1988; the notebooks on the left start in 2010.

I’ve kept notebooks since I was about ten. In 2009, I broke down the entire collection, sorted out what I thought was “important” (story chunks, journal entries, etc) from what I thought wasn’t (to-do lists), and put what I kept into a binder.

I’ve regretted it ever since.

The notebooks as objects spark joy, a fact I didn’t realize until I’d gotten rid of the first batch entirely. Scanning what’s in them, even if I did every page of every notebook, simply wouldn’t be the same. It’s not that I want easy access to the info; it’s that I want the presence of the notebooks themselves in my life. So here they are.

This Isn’t Even My Final Form

This is the pile on its way out to the recycling bin:

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My filing cabinet now has 8 folders in it: One for each tax year and one for things I need to deal with this month (mostly bills). Once a month, I clean out last folder, deal with its contents, scan anything I need to keep and toss all the paper. The rest of the space in my filing cabinet holds office supplies.

And this approach feels a million times more adulty than what I tried to do before.

I know where everything is. I can find anything I need, either in the filing cabinet or on my external hard drive, in a matter of seconds. I’m not losing bills or paperwork anymore.

Thanks, Marie Kondo. I will happily throw it all away.

Next time: Komono.