Let's just call her a woman I know very well. She's beautiful and intelligent with a great sense of humor (about most things), but there's one smallish problem.
She -- like her mother before her, raising a question of genetics -- cannot throw out paper. Oh, she parts readily with used paper plates or napkins or brown wrapping paper, but she firmly believes that if someone went to all the trouble to print something on a piece of paper, it's worth saving.
Magazines and newspapers and catalogues pile up knee-high in our home. I move the stacks against the walls, hoping for some insulation value and trying to prevent the dog from getting lost. Sometimes, in an orgy of what she calls "getting organized," she takes out scissors and snips the articles, the recipes -- seemingly every article, every recipe -- transforming piles of magazines into piles of clippings. Occasionally, she puts the stuff she's clipped into folders, transforming piles of clippings into piles of folders.
The chair in which the woman I know very well sits to do her job (she is self-employed, successful, works at home) is surrounded by papers, clips, folders -- sort of a diorama of the evolution of her effect on printed matter.
Our son calls it "Mommy's nest," and, as the paper circle spreads out and up, I see the visual metaphor. But while I understand why birds build nests, this, as the poet Robert Burns might say, "I dona ken."
I used to try to discuss this peculiar tear in the fabric of logic with the mostly defect-free woman-I-know-very-well or to make tiny jokes about it but have found that the barge bearing her considerable sense of humor doesn't venture that far out of the harbor.
Are we unique in this problem? Is there anything we can do?
From John Amendt, 43, clinical director of the Marriage Clinic in Wheaton, Ill., who has given talks on how space affects relationships:
"Clutter is definitely a point of contention for lots of people. Of course there are couples in which both are pack rats, but it gets to be a problem when one is that way and the other isn't.
"Such a couple must come to a mediation. They might agree that certain areas of the house are common areas or areas where guests might go while other parts of the house might be allowed some clutter.
"As to why some people are savers, what's behind it, anything I'd say about an individual would just be speculation. I can say though that very seldom is it a deep psychological problem requiring medication. What savers themselves usually say is that these are things they are reluctant to throw out because they might need them sometime in the future.
"Some professional organizers say you should put a lot of stuff in boxes labeled with a future date, say a year ahead. If you haven't needed to go into a box by that time, throw it out.
"Another tip is to scan magazine articles into your computer. With catalogue software and keywords, you can retrieve them easily.
"For people with home offices, it's often just a matter of having a system and sticking with it."
Says Donna Smallin, 39, a freelance writer and author of "Unclutter Your Home: 7 Simple Steps; 700 Tips and Ideas":
"Well, you can't change other people, so you need to have some good communication, explain why uncluttering is important to you. . . .
"I was watching `Friends' on TV the other night and noticed all the clutter in their apartments. That got me to thinking about the shows of the '50s and '60s, `Leave It to Beaver,' that sort of thing. The houses in those shows were always so neat. I think the shows reflect reality in that clutter is a recent phenomenon.
"Now both parents work and there's just not much time for housework. Of course, one reason they work so hard is to have more and more of the stuff that creates the clutter they want to get rid of.
"People keep things for two main reasons: Some things have sentimental value. It was your grandmother's. If you love it, keep it. It's good to surround yourself with things that are important to you. The other reason to keep things is that you think they might be useful someday when you finally lose the 10 pounds and fit in those dresses again.
"How much stuff is enough? If you keep buying things and throw nothing out, well, a house is a finite size.
"You have to cut down on buying. Don't buy something just because it's on sale. Make a purchase only to replace something that is broken or worn out. That not only helps to conquer clutter but also cuts the amount of credit-card debt, which has become astounding in this country.
"Before you start to attack your clutter, you should take a good look at yourself and see what you want out of life. There's a better chance of success if you define the ultimate benefit. That benefit might be getting control of your finances or having time to go back to school.
"It won't happen overnight. Like losing weight, you have to have a goal, and you have to work on it every day.
"When I was asked to do the book, I thought I should do some straightening up as I worked on it. I decided to start small, a single kitchen drawer. Do you know I had three melon ballers?"
Thank you. With all your good advice, we are working on the paper problem. A new problem, however, has arisen. The woman-I-know-very-well is beginning to talk about cleaning up the basement, throwing out my tools that have gotten a little rusty, tossing my great big box of nuts and bolts and screws and used nails that are nearly straight, getting rid of the stacks of old wood I've saved for so long. What can I do? Hello? Hello?