When I was six years old my scruples were removed along with my tonsils and adenoids. It was a fashionable surgery in the early 1970s. Consequently I’m a peculiar kind of Philistine with an affinity for the pragmatic aspects of other people’s cultural rituals. I’m amoral and omnivorous. Technically I’m a nominal Catholic, but waaaay lapsed. I’ve actually been to more Passover seders in my life than Easter dinners and I’ve been to a few Ramadan iftars as well.
Mormons taught me how to prepare a deep pantry with a one year food supply. Just in case. You never know. And New England Protestants inadvertently demonstrated that you can starve to death at a Presbyterian wedding. (You can never be too rich or too thin.) Part of Pesach in the Jewish tradition involves scrubbing the entire house clean with a special emphasis on kitchen cupboards in the search for chametz. It’s basically spring cleaning with a touch of Pharaoh and Moses from Exodus. Well, it’s spring and I’m all in.
Casting a wide net as I do I sought guidance in the form of Marie Kondo, also known as KonMari, the Japanese author of The Life‑Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy. She combines the international corporate branding of her domestic skills a la Martha Stewart with a Shinto animist sensibility. If you’re going to have things in your life they should contribute to your happiness and not burden you with clutter. Some things need to be purged so they can serve a better purpose elsewhere. Thank them for their service and let them go. It’s a bit hokey, but it works.
I started with my clothes closet. It’s a tiny remnant from a past century when most people had a handful of garments that they would hang on hooks. My closet isn’t even deep enough to accommodate a hanger. This space also has to double as the linen closet since there isn’t anyplace else to store sheets or extra blankets. And because it’s a small apartment with a limited amount of space for bulky furniture dressers and armoires aren’t a great option.
After reducing the number of things I retained by sending redundant items off to the thrift shop I organized the keepers in simple white cardboard boxes: socks, underwear, folded T-shirts, folded jeans. But there still just wasn’t enough space for all the truly essential items. And please understand, I have a pretty minimal wardrobe by American standards to begin with. So I aggressively cherry picked the books on my bedroom shelves and cleared out enough space to fit some simple canvas bins to hold the rest. It got the job done. 感謝!
Now, remember – I’m omnivorous and amoral. I have a desire to keep a serious reserve of necessities on hand in the Mormon tradition, but understand the need for organization with a hint of Shinto minimalism. So my one year stash of toothpaste, floss, soap, razors, deodorant, and other everyday basics had to be jockeyed around and accommodated better as I went about KonMari-ing. A discrete row of white boxes now holds all my Apocalypse sundries on top of the built-in book shelves. They’re easily accessible for periodic rotation, but almost invisible. C’est magique! Now I can bow and thank my shampoo for its service fully prepared for the Apocalypse. What’s not to love?
Next I tackled the office. These little apartments in San Francisco tend to have what used to be outdoor laundry rooms off the kitchen. Over time washing machines and later dryers were introduced and these tiny porches were enclosed and converted to other uses. I KonMari-ed the accumulated crud on the shelves and desk. There were a hundred CD-ROMs that hadn’t been touched for… how many years? I no longer have a computer that even reads these disks. What’s on them? I have no idea. And have you noticed how the more wireless devices we have the more wires we accumulate? What do you do with the rat’s nest under the desk? (FYI, this is what keeps this blog functioning.)
As I plunged headlong into my KonMari I decided the apartment needed to be painted. It’s been at least fifteen years since I gave the place a fresh coat and everything is just a little bit too scratch and dent at this point. I dragged the ladder up from the garage and bought matching paint. One room at a time I’m getting closer to a tidy clean space.
Along the way I rediscovered things I had nearly forgotten. Rolled up in a cardboard tube at the back of a cupboard I found some cheap flea market posters I bought in Kiev years ago. I held them in my hands and they did in fact spark joy.
I framed and hung them on the walls around the bed on either side of a silk rug I got in India thirty years ago. Now Laika the cosmonaut dog and Yuri Gagarin with his Slavic goyishe punim grace the room. I kvell a little every time I see these pictures along with the oddly matching Green Lady Princess Leia pillow.
This set off memories of a millennial I met at a professional conference down in Orange County a while ago. I told him the next time he’s in San Francisco he should stop by. He was of the impressionable earnest Young Republican variety. Suit and tie. Much to my surprise he actually showed up one day while in town for business. As he mingled with the other dinner guests he became increasingly alarmed at my decor. He thought I might genuinely be a communist. You know. San Francisco. The bust of Lenin from the Beryozka shop in Moscow circa 1989 really worried him.
I tried to explain to him the difference between political affiliation and kitsch. So… let’s say you saw a really nicely done print ad for a product. It was crisp and bold with a compelling caption. But it was also completely wrong. Like – a total obvious lie. For example, a full page spread in Life Magazine from the 1950s depicting a doctor in a white lab coat proclaiming a certain brand of cigaret was good for your health. See? He only half got it.
Then I explained that I’d love to have framed prints of some of Saatchi & Saatchi’s early ad campaigns for Margaret Thatcher. Labor Isn’t Working. Regardless of your philosophical leanings the graphic design was striking and the double meaning word play was memorable. Except it wasn’t camp enough. Again, he struggled with the concept. “Camp?”
In the kitchen I have some vintage framed images I bought at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Museum. The museum is tucked away in the basement of an ordinary apartment building in the old French concession of the city. It’s well worth a side trip if you’re ever in Shanghai. I pointed to one meant to depict the international friendship between Russian and Chinese communists. The intertwined olive and peach trees with doves represent peace and prosperity for each culture. But the two guys in the picture are inadvertently super gay. It’s funny. Long silent pause. “But it’s communist.” Heavy sigh. One man’s comic joy sparking is another man’s political blasphemy.
I’m nowhere near done with the apartment yet, but I’m moving toward a cleaner, fresher, less cluttered living space that reflects my peculiar sentiments and makes me genuinely happy.