My KonMari Experience — Part One


When I was going up for tenure and would worry about what I would do if I didn’t get it, I’d fantasize about becoming a professional organizer. After I earned tenure and went on a year-long sabbatical, I organized every aspect of my life. I touched every file and book, putting them all into groups so I would know exactly what was where. As an anal-retentive Virgo, it felt really good. Each aspect of my life was all together yet in its place.

When I heard the commotion surrounding The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, I didn’t think much of it. I’d read all the books that were big in the 90s and 00s and didn’t think much of a new one. Then I saw Kondo had made Time‘s list of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World. Of the billions of people on the planet, she was chosen for this list, so I had to read the book and find out why.

I didn’t expect to learn much. Like I said, I didn’t need to learn how to organize because I was already living an organized life. But the book surprised me. Perhaps because it was the first organizational book I have read written by someone from outside of the United States, a fair amount of it was revelatory. Others may not feel that way. I’ve heard criticisms that the book is mere common sense, but what gets labeled as “common sense” is often information people learned early in life and internalized easily. I had never heard of a lot of her ideas before.

A series of blog posts was born, with this being the first. I’m going KonMari all over this house and seeing the effects immediately. What am I learning?

I am doing it all wrong. It’s a key principle of the method that you should do everything at once, like gather each and every article of clothing in the entire house before deciding to discard or keep any of it. That’s logical, but it’s not what I’m doing. Before I was done with the book, I was ready to tackle the closet in my home office. I could see things I had neatly organized while realizing I didn’t really need to keep them. I dove in and ended up with three bags of garbage, one bag of papers to shred, two bags of recycling, one half bag of electronics to recycle, and a box of donations, a lot of it shown in the photo above. Of the two big shelves in the closet, I had totally emptied one.

I love vertical storage in boxes I already own. One key KonMari principle is to store things vertically (I won’t go into why because she does a great job in the book explaining her rationale for everything). I first tried this with the office supplies I had in the closet, putting them on their sides in an old plastic box, and it was a perfect fit. Yes, I can reach everything much more easily than before. Kondo recommends using the boxes Apple products come in because they are so sturdy, and that is very true. I still had the box my iPad mini came in, and the two halves fit perfectly in my desk drawers for loose pens, sticky notes, and flash drives.

Then I thought of something else that might work for a lot of us in the United States: Amazon boxes. I had one I was getting ready to break down and recycle, but instead I folded the flaps into it and taped them all down so nothing could get caught underneath them. It was perfect for everything related to my cameras. I put filters, chargers, and tripods in it–all vertically, of course–and it’s perfect. I can especially see using Amazon boxes for clothes.

But that will be another post in the future. I’m just getting started.

A Bright Red Sloop in the Harbor | A DJ NP3 Original Playlist

A Bright Red Sloop in the HarborI grew up when 80s pop hits about the Cold War pulled us onto the dance floor at my small-town Texas’ Christian center’s weekend teen nights. “Enola Gay.” “99 Luftballons.” “Forever Young.” That’s when I fell in love with musical juxtapositions, the ways a song could make me circle my hands and hips in joy while I mouthed along to lyrics about bombs, alarms, and dying young. Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?

Heavy on British synth-pop–geographically and stylistically–the songs on this playlist juxtapose. Even without overt political agendas, anxiety pulsates through these hi-hats and four-on-the-floor rhythms. Take the Aeroplane remix of Friendly Fires’ “Paris.” Au Revoir Simone takes over the lyrics in this version, which starts off sounding like one of those Scandinavian numbers that flutter within the chill-out lounges hidden behind sound-proofed doors in the corners of preeminent dance clubs.

It’s a love song, isn’t it? Or is the singer developing a slow rage as she realizes the pledge to move to Paris is an empty promise? Minutes into the song, the singer’s voice distorts as the music reverberates. Whole bass notes mix with oscillating sixteenth notes, great for dancing but not a happy little pop song.

That’s true of almost all of the songs on this list. Calvin Harris practically begs for faith–unproven yet believable truths–but the beats are completed-jigsaw-puzzle perfect, not a piece out of place. Metronomy worries about being trapped in the past even as Joseph Mount layers a Minimoog on top of a Roland Juno-60 on top of a Moog Source and carries the song and band forward.

Not that the playlist is all worry and anxiety. Not at all. The Betablock3r remix of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Can Happen” is anthemic, a mix that can get all of the singular bodies undulating on a dance floor as one. And Hadouken! might feel trapped on Earth, but it’s not for long. Our feet can rise. We each can float, especially if we’re lucky enough to find a bright red sloop in the harbor.

I need a little | is that too much to ask for | they’ll be out for us | I’m on it | we didn’t read it in a big book | everyone thinks we’re trouble | I can’t do well when I think you’re going to leave | can you be believing now | now I’ve seen it through | now I know the truth | I know it’s starting | with every chord that plays | I close my eyes

“Prayer in C” (Robin Schulz Radio Edit Remix) by Lily Wood and the Prick (2014: 3′ 9″)

A lot of songs portray what it is like to fall in love with the perfect person; the Robin Schulz remix of Lily Wood and the Prick’s “Prayer in C” embodies what it feels like after you realize perfection does not exist and you have kicked its lying ass to the curb. Lily Wood and the Prick consist of Nili Hadida and Benjamin Cotto, a French-Israeli duo who released “Prayer in C” as a folk song in 2010, Cotto’s slow guitar backs Nadida’s painful vocals about being left behind by a man who just left, no note and no reasons given. German DJ Robin Schulz transformed the song this year with this remix. The song begins with bongo drums and a rhythm guitar playing at mid-tempo. Clapping hands pop up on the alternate beats of several measures. Things appear happy–or at the very least content–but anyone who pays attention to the vocals hears what is really going on. The woman is in pain, the man is gone, and she will never forgive him. This is a pissed off song you can scream you head off to. Like much house/techno music, the beats repeat throughout the song even while the chords become more complex. The bongo drums and basic guitar rhythms eventually give way to a growing, reverberating synthesizer. In this radio edit, these house/techno elements do not dominate as much as in Schulz’s longer remixes, but they appear clearly and set a tone that will always make me think of 2014 whenever this songs pumps into my headphones.

The Art Monkey, That Funky Monkey

“I believed that I’d have a pleasant, easy-going life if I could only get the art monkey off my back.” (Edmund White, The Farewell Symphony, pg. 66).

This is the crux of my mid-life crisis, if you can call what I’m going through at age forty-five a crisis when I have a home, husband, and job. It’s more a question of time. I have it, so how do I use it? Do I luxuriate in the chance to stream Alias all day long for no reason other than to develop an established opinion as to whether or not the show truly went downhill in season three? Or do I shut the door, turn off all devices, and take pen to notebook to scratch away at the hours between arriving home and going to bed? I could do both, but I have always been an all-or-nothing kind of guy.

The period White is describing when he says this is during his early thirties when he had completed a handful of unpublished novels. I have an even smaller number of unpublished essays, academic and creative. Most of the time, my ideas do not progress to the stage of completeness where I could consider them to be unpublished. They barely qualify as unfinished and would probably best be defined as unformed.

I have ideas. I have people who tell me my ideas are worth exploring. I always get just enough positive feedback to make me think that it might be worth it to feed and care for the art monkey rather than take it to a shelter to be adopted by someone else, someone who needs the encouragement I’ve been taking for granted. Care and feeding takes work, ass-in-the-chair work, but the pleasant, easy-going life shimmers at the edges.

White clearly kept the monkey around. White earned the right to call himself an author, an artist. I’ve earned a lot but not that.

Essaying: Dave Zoby’s “Café Misfit”

(Dave Zoby’s “Café Misfit” appears in issue 37.1–the Spring 2014–issue of The Missouri Review; it received the journal’s 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Best Essay.)

The latest issue of The Missouri Review arrived the other day, and it contains the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize winners. “Café Misfit” by Dave Zoby received the award for Best Essay, a piece that perfectly captures the Old Virginia, a bar and restaurant near Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Zoby worked as the bar manager while in graduate school at VCU.

Though I consider Texas my home state since I lived there from the age of one to the age of twenty-three, I was born in Richmond. So I felt especially drawn to descriptions of my birth home, especially of the food the area provides: catfish from Yorktown; cilantro from LaPrell Nursery; baguettes from Melchers. My mother’s family is from Culpepper, and Zoby describes getting the freshest pork for your roe from a Culpepper farmer’s smokehouse.

Every town or neighborhood has a place for the local outsiders and eccentrics, and the Old Virginia was that place. Joe, the proprietor, puts patrons before profits, much to Zoby’s chagrin as he tries to maintain the business side of his job. This is an essay about characters, the characters who drop in and work at the Old Virginia along with the Old Virginia itself. And then there’s Zoby, who is also searching and finds a temporary dock along with everyone else in the essay.

Some quotations I had to underline while reading:

“They were Italians from Philly: there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration” (42).

“Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically” (49).

“I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic one, to tether them to the world” (52).

Essaying: Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed”

(Tod Goldberg‘s “When They Let Them Bleed” is included in Best American Essays 2013; it originally appeared in issue 13 of Hobart)

I’ve written about Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage” and his adept use of the section break. I read Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed” the same week I read Kerstetter, and Goldberg takes the section break and turns it up to eleven. There are nineteen different sections in this essay, and I might be off by one or two. I would call this essay a collage or mosaic except I normally think of those sub-genres as filled with seemingly disconnected sections, and Goldberg’s is more cohesive than essays that tend to fall in those categories. He just uses the different sections to explore the same situation from as many perspectives as possible: the death of Duk Koo Kim.

Quite simply, Duk Koo Kim died from a punch he received in a boxing match with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini at Caesars Palace on November 13, 1982 (Kim died a few days later in the hospital). Goldberg watched the match on TV; he was eleven. He describes how he was a cutter before we knew what cutters were. He would place the tip of his pocketknife into the girth of his stomach, wishing he could just cut the fat away. It has also been years since he’s seen his father, but his father has given him a subscription to Sports Illustrated, and Goldberg would meticulously remove the covers from the magazine and plaster them on his bedroom walls. He’s a kid in pain drawn to sports heroes.

Then he watches someone get pummeled to death on TV. Of course, that event sticks with him. Parts of this essay explore what he learns about Kim and how he was born and grew up in South Korea before he fought and died in Las Vegas. A lot of things changed after this event. They changed for Kim’s family. They changed for Mancini. They changed for boxing. They even changed for Sports Illustrated (Goldberg counts the number of times boxing was featured on the magazine’s cover before and after the Mancini-Kim bout). Of course, they changed for Goldberg, too. The power of this essay is in how he mines the ripple effects of this one event. I don’t think he left anything out, but his essay in no way feels long or drawn out. It just feels deep and smart.

A few passages I marked:

“I can’t think of Duk Koo Kim, who weighed 135 pounds and was five foot six and was fighting for the lightweight championship of the world, without thinking about how at the same time I was eleven years old and stood just four foot eight and weighed 135 pounds, about how I would squeeze the layers of fat on my stomach against the frame of my shower and imagine slamming the door hard enough to just cleave the skin off, how it would solve so many problems, how lucky it would be just to melt into the crowd of students at my school, to be an invisible boy” (206).

“What’s a knockout? Technically, it’s a stroke. A very small stroke, but a stroke no less” (207).

“For many years I have wondered why their deaths don’t haunt me as much as this stranger’s death, this boy who died by the calculated risk of becoming a boxer, and I can only conclude that it’s all about distance. I didn’t see either of my friends die—though in some respect I should have at least seen the signs, but I was a boy too, and they were boys, and you can’t expect boys to see things like pain and depression as clearly as retrospect would like us to believe—I just stood there in the aftermath and wondered why I was thinking of a dead boxer” (214).

“I stopped hurting myself after Duk Koo Kim died. I don’t know why. I still have the pocketknife, however. It’s in an old tackle box that’s out in my garage. It’s strange: I have a tendency to hold on to things that are relics of bad memories, as if by knowing where they are I’ll somehow be able to avoid the unlucky occurrence of running into them and being overwhelmed” (215).

Essaying: Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage”

(Jon Kerstetter‘s “Triage” is included in  Best American Essays 2013; it originally appeared in issue 13.2 of River Teeth.)

One powerful tool available to essayists–and other writers–is the section break. It can provide the reader with a chance to pause and absorb what she or he has just read. It can turn the essay on its ear and take the reader in a whole new direction, one that may not seem to relate to what has come before. It can allow the writer to explore what has already been written from a new angle, telescoping the lens farther from or closer to the subject and providing a new perspective.

In “Triage,” Jon Kerstetter breaks his essay into six distinct sections, most just a couple of pages long. He starts at a combat surgical hospital in Baghdad during October 2003. It’s filled with soldiers who have been injured in IED attacks throughout the city. Most of the soldiers followed the conventional path of surgery to post-op to ICU. Medical staff are exhausted but moving as fast and efficiently as possible. There’s one soldier in triage. He was expectant, meaning no one knew what to do to help him, and everyone expected him to die. The essay goes from there to explore what puts one patient on the list for immediate surgery and another patient in the category of “expectant” and waiting quietly in the triage room.

The second section begins with the dictionary definition of triage, a move that makes writing instructors like me cringe, but he delves deep into the definition, works through its etymological history, and exposes the fraught meanings behind it. He describes the two weeks he spent in a Combat Casualty Care Course designed to teach medical officers how to decide which patients go into one room and which go into another. Then there’s a section that details the different categories the military uses to classify patients. The penultimate section is where he reflects upon the relationship between what he was taught to do on the battlefield and what it actually means to decide someone is beyond hope. The final, brief section shows Kerstetter today, still struggling but well aware he is alive when others are not.

At a writing conference, I once heard a writer say that section breaks were a sign of a lazy writer. I was immediately offended. He argued that the best essayists know how to weave everything together into a cohesive unit. Perhaps because I began writing as a poet, the idea of a section or stanza break does not seem to be a sign of a weak writer but is just another tool, one that can be used with a heavy hand or one that can be wielded deftly. Kerstetter’s “Triage” is an example of deftness.

Some lines to ponder:

“The captain in charge of the expectant soldier’s unit told the general and me that this was their first soldier to be killed–then he corrected himself and said this was the first soldier in their unit to be assigned to triage” (124).

“In the end, it was decided that my decision to shoot, while potentially serving a greater need, may have been a bit aggressive, but that it was in fact my decision, and my decision met the needs of the mission. All ethical considerations aside, I felt that I understood the necessity and the theory of triage. I understood it as part of my job” (127).

“If the triage officer calculates that a patient falls into the expectant category, treatment is withheld in order to allow medical teams to concentrate more efficiently on those soldiers with potentially survivable injuries. Preserving the fighting force is the central tenet of the process” (127).

“Saving lives is the endpoint of all triage. Let one life go, save three others, or five, or maybe ten. The ratios don’t matter, the benefits do. And a benefit in war always comes at a cost” (128).

Some Thoughts on Academic Writing

I’m thinking this applies to writing by academics and writing taught in the first-year writing classroom. In other words, this seems incredibly relevant for the writing I do and the writing I ask my students to do.

Min Hyoung Song

GREECE Mission Launching Into Aurora

What if academic prose could aspire to be an art form in its own right, equal to any other mode of creative expression?  What would be lost and what would be gained in thinking this way?

Lead with the point you most want to make.  Don’t hold anything back.  Strive to get to the point right away.  Don’t let the reader get impatient.

Don’t pander.  Challenge the reader, make him or her stretch to get what you mean, to get what doesn’t come easily or right away.  Challenge yourself as a writer to stretch what you mean, but don’t lose all control of your meaning.  Don’t get carried away by what sounds nice or impressive.

The best measure I’ve found for determining good academic writing is whether or not it makes me want to write.  If reading something makes me want to stop immediately and go to the computer with…

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Essaying: Sarah A Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping”

I first read Sarah A. Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping” from Best American Travel Writing 2013 over Christmas. The title caught my eye quickly, and the essay pulled me in from the start. It’s a quick read (you can find the whole thing archived at The Atlantic, where it was originally published in September 2012), but it sure has stuck with me, and it generated some great discussion when I taught it a few weeks ago. We all kept circling around the same question, though: what in the hell is going on here?

Bedouins who live in the Sinai peninsula kidnap tourists because the Bedouins have relatives in Egyptian prisons. They hope that agreeing to release the tourists will lead to the release of their relatives. But it rarely works. The tourists are treated well, so well that some of them comment on what a great experience they had being served tea and sometimes lamb by their kidnappers. The kidnappers even refer to their acts as “tourist safaris.” They do want to treat the tourists well so as not to incur the wrath of the government but also so as not to incur anger from the fellow members of their tribes. In the end, it works out for everyone but the Bedouins who often do not get their relatives out of prison. It’s confounding to a Westerner like me, but it’s also not like I’ve ever had to fight for my family under such circumstances.

Some great quotations from the essay that I hope make you want to read more:

“In recent months, the security vacuum has emboldened a handful of Bedouin in the southern half of the peninsula to lobby for the release of jailed kinsmen via a novel tactic: kidnapping foreign tourists and using them as bargaining chips. Between February and early July, Bedouin tribesmen took three pairs of Americans, three South Koreans, a pair of Brazilians, and a Singaporean on “safaris” lasting between a few hours and several days” (65).

“The recent rash of kidnappings is well timed to mortify the Egyptian government. The country’s economy is already in free fall, and beach tourism is a key source of foreign currency. So the government has worked to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible. But a strange thing has happened: some of those freed tourists have described their captivity in surprisingly glowing terms” (66)

“He added that he’d packed bread, cheese, and juice for his captives. What would he have done if they had become hysterical? Attwa said he would have left them, but they didn’t cry, so he brought them here” (67)

“The kidnapper explained that in addition to the customary tea and coffee, he had served his guests roast lamb, a dish usually reserved for special occasions. He said his uncle remained in prison” (67)

Essaying: Angela Morales’ “The Girls in My Town”

Another fascinating essay in Best American Essays 2013 is “The Girls in My Town” by Angela Morales (it originally appeared in The Southwest Review). It is written in thirteen sections, which one of my students astutely pointed out matches the age of her daughter at the time Morales wrote the essay. That’s important because becoming a mother is what this essay is all about.

But it’s not about motherhood in general. It’s about teenaged girls becoming mothers, especially the teenaged girls who surround Morales in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country according to Morales. She is surrounded by girls who are growing up surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and everything else you can imagine.

Morales lives down the street from the “bad” high school, the one kids go to when they cannot go to their home school. In a lot of places, these schools are know as the bad-boy high schools, but Morales points out that this is the bad-girl high school with a program for pregnant teens where they learn life skills related to nutrition and childhood development. When the school day ends, the girls ignore what they’ve been learning and hang out at the donut shop across the street.

The major theme in the essay centers on the extent to which our lives are predestined by circumstances beyond our control. Does the future really lay out in front of all adolescents? Or do some have more options than others? Are these girls living in the middle of a cycle of love and loss they and their children doomed to repeat? Morales tells the story of La Llorona, the woman who drowned her children to be with the man she loves, but he rejects her. She drowns herself, and the legend of her wandering waterways looking for her children and crying out in pain spreads. Morales also tells the story of a teenaged mother in their town who drowns her child. This is not legend. The dead child is proof.

On the day Morales gives birth to her daughter, she shares a hospital room with a fourteen-year-old girl who also gives birth to a daughter. Morales has no idea what happens to that girl or her child, but she can make some educated assumptions. After all, she’s been watching such stories unfold throughout her life.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the essay.

“We drive on Highway 99 in search of something to look at and find FOR LEASE signs, abandoned western-themed restaurants, and peeling billboards advertising brand-new housing developments that never panned out—a picture of a two-story tract home adorned with a Spanish tile fountain, a father holding a plump toddler, a chemical-green lawn, a happy yellow dog” (171).

“They are told that they will not be alone and that caring for a child requires both strength and humility. We are your support system, the girls are told. We are here for you” (174).

“Unlike my grandmothers, the girls in this town have access to birth control pills, integrated schools with specialized programs, and guidance counselors who are supposed to tout the merits of college—even to the brown and black kids. The girls in my town have more choices, though some people might argue that when you’re young and poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find” (176).

“And if you can love babies when there’s nobody else to love, sometimes you hurt babies when there’s nobody else to hurt. You don’t mean to, exactly–you just can’t control it. Maybe it’s payback for all that’s ever been done to you” (181).

“But babies get annoying real fast. They get bigger and then they squirm away from you and then they call you names like butthead and they take off their shoes and hurl them at you and as soon as you get the shoes laced up again, they pry them off and toss them behind the dresser, and inevitably you lose that shoe and now you’ve got four mismatched shoes without mates” (186).