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November 9, 2002

Squalor and hope
Posted by Teresa at 05:15 PM *

This one isn’t about politics.

I keep showing the Squalor Survivors page to friends. It’s an unfailing source of cheer to people who feel overwhelmed by the messiness of their own homes.

Start by reading the explanation of the four degrees of squalor. After that, you’ll be ready for the before-and-after photos. Read the stories, too. It’s a tremendously brave, hopeful site.


I haven’t joined the cult myself yet, but I’m hearing good things about from friends. I like her slogan—“You can do anything for 15 minutes94—and she appears to be full of sensible, practical help for the disorganized.

Well, yes, but. There are lots of those.

What actually impresses me is that I’m hearing from friends that this one works.

Comments on Squalor and hope:
#1 ::: Anita Rowland ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2002, 07:23 PM:

That squalor survivors site (I've spent time there) got started from a thread on Julie Morgenstern's website forum. Her book, Organization from the Inside Out, has been useful for me.

I keep changing my mind about whether fannish people are more prone to clutter than the public at large. It's hard to get rid of things when you know you might have one of only twenty copies that exist of something. But I'm resolved that I don't need to keep books that I don't have any urge to read again, authors that I really don't like, etc.

I was only on Flylady for a few days, but I know people who swear by her also. The system she started from, SHE, was also useful for me when I needed to build routines.

Decluttering, organizing, and cleaning, are related issues but not identical.

#2 ::: Nancy C. Hanger ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2002, 07:29 PM:

As I told you, also, I've heard good reports of people using Flylady for helping "organize" a freelance business -- for instance, her point of always cleaning the sink at the end of the day can be applied to always cleaning off your desktop.

#3 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2002, 01:57 AM:

The closest thing to squalor in my apartment:

The Out Pile. A corner of the dining room where I put stuff to be mailed, donated, hung (on walls)or given away. Books, tapes, toys, poster frames, and gifts in piles per person or destination.

#4 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2002, 11:19 AM:

I glanced at the Flylady page without looking at the system in detail. What strikes me me most about it is the page's mating signals:

The Flylady is the Anti-Martha.

#5 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2002, 04:00 PM:

I don't understand. She reinforces the dominant paradigm by speaking of squalor as if it were something bad, rather than a lifestyle choice. Each of us should find the level of squalor he or she is happy with. (This may be a genetic predisposition, with shes less accepting of squalor than hes.)

Quentin Crisp says that squalor doesn't get any worse after four years. Charlie Mingus lived in an apartment full of empty Campbell's soup cans. He wasn't going a Warhol thing, that's what he ate. (Warhol probably picked Campbell's soup cans up from him.) Squalor may well be an important factor in creativity, like alcoholism, homosexuality, Judaism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy (nineteenth century)and tuberculosis (nineteenth century).

I just moved from level 3 to level 2.5, mostly because I was unemployed and broke and needed to take $200 worth of deposit bottles back.

#6 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2002, 04:42 PM:

I would like to live in more organized, less cluttered surroundings than I now do. I have lots of junk that I know I should get rid of. There are certain cleaning tasks that I dread, and that I know would be easier if I did them more regularly. First degree squalor, maybe.

At the same time, I sometimes feel the need to speak up for clutter. The houses that I loved the best when I was growing up had a certain degree of friendly clutter -- big, rambling houses with kids and dogs and lots of books and gadgets and weird stuff to play around with and explore. Excessively tidy environments strike me as sterile and lifeless. I want things to be functional and clean, but I'm not sure that I would want to do away with clutter, per se.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2002, 07:23 PM:

Janet's comments suggest that the degree of squalor index perhaps needs two dimensions: Clutter and Filth.

I've been places that are fairly clean, but hideously cluttered and disorganized. Not many places to sit, but those places won't have cat shit or old pieces of pizza on them.

Less common are spare places that are filthy . . . actually, many college dorms and dorm areas (kitchens, bathrooms) come to mind.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2002, 11:06 PM:

Neither site is aimed at clutter its owners like.

#9 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 08:18 AM:

We do Flylady in a desultory fashion, and our house varies from fairly disorganised to extremely disorganised. But it's a good system, provided you're able to filter e-mail in a sensible way. All of the approaches to sorting out your life founder at the point where the minimum amount of time they take is more than the maximum amount of time you're prepared to spend sorting stuff out.

#10 ::: Soren deSelby ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 08:49 AM:

I hit on the "fifteen minutes" idea some years ago myself, though it's a little different in my head: "Every little bit of cleaning counts." It's not necessary to clean the whole desk right away; put away a few pieces of paper. It's not necessary to do all the dishes; do a few. Do them until you don't want to anymore. So long as you keep doing little bits of cleanup in the interstices of your day, things clear up.

It's very important to me to keep up these little bits of cleanup, because I have mounds of clutter and squalor inextricably tied in my head to clinical depression.

#11 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 01:26 PM:

It's also worth noting that living in squalor places a huge burden on whoever is going to clean up after you when you die.

My grandmother spent the last 15 years (at least) of her life living in third degree squalor, despite my father's best efforts. (There was only so much he could do without committing her.) I was away at college at the time, and when I came home for the summer, months after my grandmother's death, the cleanup was still going on and everybody in the family who'd been working on it, especially my father, was extremely angry with my grandmother.

So I certainly didn't mean to defend squalor. But to me, clutter is a related but distinct issue.

#12 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 01:29 PM:

Soren says: So long as you keep doing little bits of cleanup in the interstices of your day, things clear up.

This is only true if the little bit of cleaning up you do each day outpaces the dirtying up you do each day. For people whose value of "you" includes children or dogs, I suspect the value of "little" has to be a lot higher. But yes, I've found that if I manage to actually clean something, it stays clean for a little while and makes my life better, which is cool.

Coincidentally, Soren, a couple of nights ago I dreamed that you were quoted in the NY Times. You were the editor of a satirical publication entitled The English Newspaper and the Times cited it as if it were serious. Hilarity, the details of which elude me, ensued.

#13 ::: Soren deSelby ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 04:24 PM:

You're right, Kevin. It would be more truthful if I said, "So long as you keep doing little bits of cleanup during the day, things will be cleaner than they would have been otherwise."

That doesn't have quite the same autopropaganda power, though.

#14 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2002, 12:21 AM:

I shouldn't underestimate the power of autopropaganda. Or undermine.

#15 ::: spacewaitress ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2002, 10:06 AM:

I've been doing the flylady system since August and it's the only thing that has been able to keep me motivated to keep my apartment neat and clean. What's great about it is that she is very nonjudgmental and encourages her members to take baby steps and build on them slowly until they become habit. She has a motto: "Housework done incorrectly still blesses your family."

Which reminds me of a saying I made up before I ever heard of her site: "A cursory swipe is better than no swipe at all."

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2002, 11:08 AM:

Exactly so, Spacewaitress. Most housework experts are preaching to the choir. The buzz I'm hearing on Flylady is that she's making a perceptible difference in the lives of the rest of us.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2002, 08:52 PM:

Today I found myself seized by a strange wordless urge to clean my house.

I didn't finish. That's okay.

Scraps, there's nothing on the kitchen table north of the computer. It's all tidied away.

#18 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 05:09 AM:

I had a look at both sites. The one I actually found preferable was the "Squalor Survivors" site. Flylady struck me as just a weenshy bit too hyper-cheerful, something I associate with someone who's trying to sell me something.

I agree with what Soren said about mounds of clutter tying in with clinical depression. I'm currently in a phase of "posting from the road through hell" myself, and that means that all my energy goes on doing things that make me feel good. So the kitchen is currently in about 2nd degree squalor, and will remain so until I can locate that round tuit of mine and get to and clean it.

However, one thing that I think a lot of people (women particularly) may have a lot of trouble with is inherited standards. I know that I do: my mother kept the house relatively clean, cooked and shopped for four people and a cat, and still managed to maintain her life. So I think I ought to be able to do all of that too - after all, I'm just as competent as my mother. Of course, the other side of it is that for most of my childhood my mother worked two nights a week - weekend night shift. By the time she went back to full-time Monday - Friday 9 - 5 work, my brother and myself were both old enough to do a bit of the housework. So, instead of just one person doing the housework for the whole family, there were at least three (Mum, Dad, me... my brother tended to try and get out of it).

So, these days, when I start berating myself mentally for not having got the house "three-people clean" in my scant two days off each week, I stop and consider this. Then I decide to leave the ironing or the clutter where it was, and get on with the rather more interesting business of living.

Life is too short to worry about housework.

#19 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 10:43 AM:

Luckily for me, I didn't grow up with excessively high standards of cleanliness! I don't think we lived in actual squalor, but the house was pretty cluttered, and my mother, my sister and I would frantically clean every time my grandparents came over.

I've been thinking lately that in our house, the squalor tends to get pretty well confined to the peripheral areas. The more public areas (kitchen, living room, dining room, guest bathroom) stay in pretty good shape, and even when they do start to get out of hand, it never takes very long to get them looking presentable again. It's our offices, our bedroom and bathroom, the basement, and the attic that tend to get out of hand. Also, until fairly recently, the garden. And finally, the car, which is not part of the house but sometimes seems like a home away from home. Gotta go shovel it out someday soon.

Sometimes I feel that I not only have too much stuff, but too much area to spread it around! Though the squalor was definitely worse when we were living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment.

#20 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 03:37 PM:

Living in Ill Manor, things got grim enough with the roommates that I wrote a "neatness manifesto" to explain to the others why it makes a difference if you leave open jars out, or smears of peanut butter on the counter, and so on. It actually worked, too.

It wasn't "you must clean this up," but more of a "you must leave things at least as clean as you found them."

We left that place cleaner than we found it, though it almost took an act of congress to prove it to the landlord, who had never seen the place. We went to the original rental agency and asked for a look at their files, and there we found a copy of a document we had sent when we first moved in, citing the back porch full of garbage bags, the dogshit in the basement, the myriad holes in the walls (axe and shotgun) and ceilings, and the peeling exterior, and so on. They finally agreed we had not trashed the dump and gave us our cleaning deposit back, which was real money to us.

After that, they cleaned it professionally and hauled all the remaining trash away (we had no car to haul it away ourselves), and tried in vain to rent the place. I still can't believe nobody else would move in -- it was across the street from two grocery stores, a drug store and a 7-11; down the alley from a laundromat, and a mere three blocks from campus and a big record store. (Here's the view from the upstairs window . Every building visible in that picture is also gone.)

Meanwhile, we went our ways. Cathy and I relocated to a wonderful rental house with charm to spare, and got to stay in it for a whole month before her job in Georgia came through, and we left Colorado -- for about a year, I hoped. This was in 1980.

If I removed the clutter from this post, It'd be a nice paragraph. That's nostalgia for you. ("Who the gods would destroy, they first make nostalgic.")

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