I can’t believe it’s not clutter

Help! I’m buried in stuff and I can’t get out!

Writer Brad Bynum and his girlfriend, Margot Choltco, were amazed at all the crap they had accumulated.

Writer Brad Bynum and his girlfriend, Margot Choltco, were amazed at all the crap they had accumulated.

Photo/Eric Marks

For more information, visit www.chaosreno.com.

My life is a mess. My home is a mess. My office is a mess. And I’m too goddamned busy to fix the mess. I live in a state of perpetual chaos. I work full-time here at the RN&R, forever pushing deadlines. I’m also a full-time grad student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and, as of last semester, a part-time instructor. I have a creative project—a rock band—that requires weekly rehearsals and all the attentions of managing a small business. All these occupations tend to generate stuff—newspapers, school papers, music equipment. All that stuff starts to pile up.

I have a 9-year-old son who generates a trail of Legos, Star Wars toys and comic books as if by spontaneous generation. My girlfriend, Margot, is an artist and an archaeologist—which means she likes to bring home objects she finds on the side of the road either to paint or just because they’re fascinating curiosities. She has two daughters, aged 8 and 9, and they also generate a trail of stuff—clothes and toys and trash and more and more Legos. I have a dog who has an extensive collection of half-destroyed stuffed animals. I have a house I co-own with my ex, and we’re prepping it to put on the market in the spring, so there’s half a dozen improvement projects in various stages of incompletion. I have stacks of books, vinyl records, CDs, cassettes, DVDs, VHS tapes, and magazines that arrive in the mail and go unread. There are bills I can’t find. Books I can’t find. Clothes I’m too fat to wear. School papers I can’t find. Keys I can’t find.

I waste hours and hours looking for things, scrounging around Margot’s house, hunting for my knit cap which somehow fell between the cushions of the couch.

Things start to pile up. Dishes pile up. Dirty laundry piles up. Unread mail piles up. Piles pile up. The problem of having too many things is what we might call a first world problem. It’s like Charles Foster Kane, rich, bitter and old, wandering his house among his innumerable possessions, looking for some object he could imbue with the significance of lost innocence.

One day—while cleaning up after the three children, the dog, and grossest and messiest of all, me—Margot decided that we needed professional help to get rid of our clutter.

“If there wasn’t so much, I could do it,” she said. “It’s just so overwhelming, the amount that we have. It’s more than one day of 12 hours of purging and cleaning and organizing. It’s multiple steps and multiple days, and I don’t even know where to start. It’s like trying to find a black shirt in a pile of black clothes.”

Chaos theory

Debbie Cox is the owner of an organizing company with a great acronym, Creative Home And Office Solutions (CHAOS). She’s a tall, striking redhead with a beatific air and the calming presence required to mediate a heated dispute about where the vinyl records should be kept. She’s a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers. She’s appeared as a consultant on the TV show Hoarding: Buried Alive. Before launching CHAOS in 2009, she worked as a corporate office manager. She owned a Moxie Java in south Reno and a consignment shop, Chaos to Cash, on Wells Avenue.

“I was always one of the organized people, even as a child,” she said. “It’s either a trait you have or you don’t have. It’s a hard trait, I think, to learn. Being organized just meant that everything had to have its place.”

Professional organizer Debbie Cox helps Margot Choltco sort through her dirty laundry … literally.

Photo/Eric Marks

Cox helps businesses, families and individuals organize their stuff. Her clients range from small businesses to single moms to elderly folks who want to manage their possessions before moving into retirement homes.

“What it is, is making sure you find a place for everything in your home—and containerizing,” she said. “We’re big on containerizing. And really evaluating with people—what do you need to use? What is currently used? And what can you get rid of?”

Cox is sympathetic to the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with hiring a professional organizer and inviting them into a home. She says some of her clients ask her to park her car—which is emblazoned with the logo of her business—out of sight so that neighbors won’t judge them for needing the help.

“I always tell people when I come to work with them—don’t pick up things,” she said. “Because if you pick up, I don’t realize what the issues are for you, because you’ve shoved it in a drawer. No, I need to see what your issues are, so that I can find a way to work through it. I don’t care about your dishes and things. That’s not what I’m looking at. I’m not here to evaluate your house. I’m here to help you get things to work, but people are very embarrassed. Their anxiety level can be very high at all times.”

Many of the people she has helped struggle with one form of hoarding or another. She’s helped car lovers who’ve kept ever car part they’ve ever come across, including dozens of worthless, bald tires. She’s helped old folks with huge collections of the basically worthless Franklin Mint collector plates. She’s helped collectors with houses overflowing with bundles of old magazines and newspapers.

“They’ll keep National Geographic from the day it started or whatever,” she said. “They’re not worth anything, but people think they are, so they keep all of them, and that’s what lines the halls of these people’s houses.”

Humans form sentimental attachments to things—mementos of dead relatives or baby clothes—but rather than hanging on to every single item, Cox recommends selectively choosing one or two items, perhaps taking some pictures of other things, and purging the rest.

Of course, Margot and I, like a lot of other people, have a lot of stuff that we don’t want anymore, but we think somebody might want it. And since money is often tight, we don’t want to just give something away when we could get a few bucks for it, but we’re so busy that we just end up holding on to it. It’s hard to find the time to sell things on Craigslist or eBay.

Last August, when we actually had a few days to spare, Margot and I cleaned out the garage at her place, set it up like a store front, invited all our friends over, posted signs around the neighborhood, and had a garage sale. We sold a few things, and made a couple of hundred bucks, but it was a week’s worth of preparation and hard work, and we didn’t really free up that much space, or get rid of quite enough stuff, or make quite enough money to make it worth all the time and effort.

Why are these people smiling?

Photo/Eric Marks

And then, the following week, some dickhead came over and stole our bikes, which had been moved out of the garage to make room for the sale and locked on the side of the house. It felt like a huge violation, and we suspect that the thief might’ve cased our joint during the sale. The experience soured our taste for garage sales.

Another option that Cox suggests is taking things to consignment shops. For furniture and home décor, there’s Stellar Consignment, Consign & Design, Not Just Furniture, Consign Furniture, and Yellow House Consignment. For clothing, there’s Labels Clothing Consignment for upscale and designer items, Clothes Mentor for women’s clothing, and Plato’s Closet for teenagers' clothes, and Sippees and Once Upon A Child for children’s clothes. There’s also Junkee Clothing Exchange for clothes and miscellaneous items, Recycled Records and Spectre Records for music and movies, and Grassroots Books for books.

Of course, the consignment shops don’t always take everything, so that route isn’t always the best option. There are also many charities that take donated goods, like the Salvation Army, the SPCA, and Friends of Multiple Sclerosis. Cox recommends donating children’s clothes and toys, and women’s clothes to the Committee to Aid Abused Women, and she suggests Reno Gospel Mission as a charity that will accept just about everything.

Shaking the globe

After her first full day of working with Cox—sorting, purging and containerizing all that clutter—Margot said she was visualizing her house like it was inside a snow globe.“When you start a big project like this, it’s as if you take the snow globe off the shelf and turn it upside down and shake it. All the contents come out of the closets and find a new place. You pick up your house, turn it upside down, and you shake it. It feels needed, and I look forward to it, but it’s unsettling. It’s messing up to clean up.”

One of the most impressive things about Cox’s process was how she was able to recommend uses for furniture pieces and storage devices that we already had—an under-used dresser in the basement became the new living room entertainment center. She also had a critical eye for the pile of old clothes that needed mending. (It’s a big pile. Children tear clothes. Grown-ass men who like to dance around like maniacs tear clothes.) For Margot, it was a project for a rainy day, but Cox’s question was, was that stuff even worth mending?

“You should set your own time frame, but I’m going to say if it’s been in here for six months and you haven’t mended it yet—questionable,” she said. “A year? Gone. The reality is—I don’t know why we’re all so much busier now—but I think we’re all so much busier nowadays that unless you have time and make an appointment with yourself to do it, then it goes. Because you’re never going to get it done if you don’t make yourself an appointment and just do it.”

Cox also suggested taking the baby-step approach: rather than trying to fix every mess in the house over the course of one long weekend, which leads to failure and frustration, she suggested blocking out a few hours at a time, just a few days a week. No all-night cramming sessions, and no daily regiment either, because that really starts to feel like a chore.

“Don’t do it daily, and do little bits at a time, because then you’ll get through more,” she said. She also recommends extensive labeling. “You have to label. I don’t care if there’s five different things in that tub. You have to label all five things.”

And although the experience was often stressful, Margot felt rejuvenated after working with Cox. “She’s like a fast friend,” said Margot. “You invite her into your home. She sees all your dirty laundry, all your bad habits, all your weird neurosis about attachment to your material culture, and then when she leaves, she gives you a hug and tells you you’re doing great.”

But here’s the best idea we got from Cox—an idea that immediately made hiring her worth it. You remember when I said I was going to sell my house in the spring? Cox suggested that we use that house to stage an estate sale.

Whereas a garage sale is something where people go through their house and pick out the things they don’t want and put them outside or in the garage and try to sell them, at an estate sale, the people are usually either dead or they’ve moved across the country or something, so everything in the house is for sell. Because of this, people will spend more money at an estate sale. The assumption is that a garage sale is somebody else’s junk, but an estate sale could well include that person’s treasures. And Cox said she sells a lot of things at estate sales that wouldn’t be big movers at garage sales. She’s even sold half-used bottles of cleaning supplies—often to house cleaners.

I didn’t even know you could have an estate sale without being dead. But we’re having one in February. You can come pick over my carcass while I’m still alive! Hit me up if you’re interested.