Getting the most leverage from a redo of a room.
I've spent the past 10 weeks sorting through the piles of clutter in my very messy attic with Caitlin Shear, a professional organizer with A Sorted Affair in Fairfax. Throughout the process, my husband, Bob, has been wary and even a bit skeptical.
Every Friday morning he can hear a continuous, 2-hour round of laughter from our home's third floor and wonders what kind of hen party is going on up there. He doesn't seem to understand why certain items from the attic, such as never-used teacups and saucers, have found a new home in the kitchen. "Isn't that why we have an attic" he asked, "to store stuff we don't really use so it doesn't clutter up the rest of the house?"
At some points during these decluttering sessions, Bob would come up, look around and utter some hollow compliment about how much better the place looks, and then race off to go to work.
Now that Caitlin and I are almost done, it is Bob's turn to sift through the remaining rubble.
One day last week, I was the one who slipped out to work while Caitlin and Bob sorted through a large pile of obsolete electronics and technology, newspaper clippings, a collection of more than 600 record albums, cassettes and CDs, and personal papers from a longer-than-usual bachelorhood.
When I returned home that evening and sneaked upstairs to see what they'd accomplished, I was surprised and delighted by the progress. His attic piles had thinned considerably, split between donations and trash.
And I think they learned a lot about each other.
Caitlin learned that Bob's collections concentrated on two main subjects: music and the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike. We both lost our reporting jobs in that strike, but it was particularly painful for Bob, who grew up in Detroit and was infuriated when his hometown newspaper kicked him to the curb and, in his mind, deteriorated into a very mediocre read.
During the strike, he was on the bargaining committee for the Newspaper Guild, which represents most newsroom employees, and a picket-line captain. He amassed one of the only archives of the strike, including newsletters, buttons, T-shirts, posters and two nearly complete sets of the Detroit Sunday Journal, a newspaper published by striking newsroom employees.
This stuff fills about five boxes in the attic, and Caitlin is concerned that we are not preserving it properly. She recommends acid-free archival newspaper boxes for the Sunday Journals and wonders whether Bob will consider donating the entire archive to a journalism school or related think tank.
"I would donate it if it went someplace where it might be accessible," he told me later, "or if I thought it might be of any value to someone who might want to use it or look at it." Until that happens, if it happens, he'd like to keep it but does not want to spend the money on the archival newspaper boxes.
Caitlin also suggested transforming the 15 strike-related T-shirts into a quilt and framing one or two of the picket signs, two ideas that Bob liked, to my surprise.
She made less progress on paring down his extensive music collection.
Bob remains quite annoyed that the formats have changed from album (and eight-track) to cassette to CD and now to digital. I'm sure we are the only house on the block without an iPod. In a perfect world, he would like a music room on the main floor of our house, to store all of this music and the many components needed to listen to it. "Meanwhile, who knows?" he said, deciding to keep all of it up in the attic. For now.
This sounds like Bob did not get rid of anything, but that's not true. Nearly a dozen old computers, printers, stereo components and other electronics were donated to Goodwill. There were also four more trash bags filled with paper, including newspaper clippings, notes from stories he wrote decades ago and even a Rolodex from his reporting days in Mississippi 25 years ago. He was embarrassed he had held onto it for so long.
"It reflects a piece of your life, so you hang onto it," he said. "I've come across them before and thought, 'I'm never gonna need these phone numbers again,' but so what? It's just a small thing. I'll keep it. But I've never actually tripped down that memory lane, so what's the point of keeping it?"
He had not been looking forward to going through his stuff with Caitlin because he felt like he didn't have the time. But he found several gems while sorting through his papers, including a paper plate where he'd written all the old addresses his father had as a child growing up in Detroit; and some bills from the Marriott World Trade Center, where we spent our wedding night. The hotel was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.
He said Caitlin showered him with questions during the two-hour session, just as she does to me, asking, "What exactly is this? And why exactly did you save it?" He would be a third of the way through one box, and she'd drag over another to politely nudge him along.
"It's our own fault we got to this point," he told me. "But it definitely makes more sense to have someone to help you."
How do you organize your albums and CDs? Clearly Bob and I need some help in this area. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com