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Domestic chaos - a sign of intellectual sloppiness?
A place for everything, and everything in its place: A tough ideal when you have a lot of stuff.

The Ottawa Citizen has just launched a new contest called Clean Sweep that ''offers a clean solution to home chaos.'' You're meant to send the paper colour pictures of ''your disorganized state of living'' along with a letter explaining ''why you are not organized and what you could achieve by getting and staying organized.'' I'd love to participate, but I'm convinced the judges would think I'm cheating.

Actually, at the moment, things are unusually chaotic. No, really. But ordinarily, my ''state of living'' could best be described as ''sort of tentatively organized, for now.'' Life in my house is a constant battle between two humans and 63 gazillion tonnes of stuff, with the humans trying to put the stuff away and the stuff always managing to find its way back to exactly where the humans are most likely to trip over it.

Yet my husband and I, cheerfully determined or possibly too dumb to recognize certain defeat when it stares us in the face, bravely keep at it, painstakingly putting our used newspapers in the recycle bin and keeping the Books To Read on a shelf hidden behind the door of the spare bedroom. But somehow our ''dining-room'' table is still buried under a pile of assorted bits of printed matter.

It's not a pretty sight. I can't possibly send pictures of that to anybody, least of all a newspaper. I mean, come on. Aren't people supposed to be marginally more intelligent than mere stuff?

I find having a cluttered house extremely irritating, and not just because it's unsightly and makes it harder to keep the place clean. Clutter is like static on the television or greasy fingerprints in your glasses. It prevents you from seeing clearly and interferes with what should be a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Imagine if it were possible to implement the place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place principle to perfection. You'd have a wonderfully clean (or, at any rate, clean-looking) and organized house in which you wouldn't waste a single second wondering under which pile of junk your red cashmere sweater has disappeared.

Also, on a more serious level, domestic chaos is a symptom of a larger problem: intellectual sloppiness. Getting even a closet organized requires thinking up a house-wide system of which that particular closet is but a tiny part. It makes no sense to stuff everything from baseball gloves to winter coats to umbrellas in your front-hall closet; you can't possibly need all those things at once. You have to find a spot for the off-season gear, but not at the expense of, say, the space you need in the basement to house the 40 tins of chicken-and-corn soup you bought on sale four months ago.

It's a giant puzzle, even if you live in a one-bedroom condo. Maybe more so in such a case, since having less storage space requires much more thinking than if you have a full unfinished basement at your disposal. And like most difficult puzzles, it gets discouraging at times because no matter how hard you try, it doesn't always look like you're making significant progress. Which is why you shouldn't give up.

If you do abandon the puzzle halfway through, and settle for living in a messy house, how do you think you'll cope when other problems present themselves or someone challenges your ideas and proposals at the office on the ground they are, gulp, disorganized and confusing?

Life in general is nothing but overlapping puzzles involving work, family and friends, complex TV schedules and making sure someone remembered to take the dog out for a walk. Organizing your house by getting rid of the clutter once and for all is as good a place as any to practise your problem-solving skills.

I'm not saying it's easy. Heck, I'm having a wretched time at it myself. But I am determined to succeed even if it's the last thing I do - which it might very well be. Then maybe I'll be able to send pictures of my interior to a newspaper and not be embarrassed about it. At least I'd know where the camera has gotten to.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa-based journalist.

 Copyright  2003 Montreal Gazette


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