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Who lives here? Check by pawing through the clutter
Scripps Howard News Service


May 05, 2005

Sociologists often study garbage to learn how society works, what we value, what we throw away. I wonder whether there's an academic out there who studies household clutter and what our clutter reveals about the way we lead our lives.

Every home has clutter. Couldn't a sociologist decipher the interests and values of the household by examining what's left lying around?

For instance, here are signs of an unhealthy interest in television: All chairs and sofas in the living room face a big-screen TV, and the clutter consists of wrinkled TV Guides, four remote controls, empty chip bags and pop bottles, and a life-size cardboard cutout of David Hasselhoff.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that artsy-craftsy folks occupy a home cluttered with knitting needles, balls of yarn, silk-flower arrangements, vats of potpourri and plaster geese wearing cute hats.

When you enter a home for the first time, can't you tell immediately whether it houses children? Most homes with children look like the aftermath of an explosion at Toys R Us. Small kids can scatter toys faster than weary parents can ever put them away. The only answer, really, is to wait until the children get older, then move to a new house.

Teenagers shed clutter like dandruff. Everywhere they go, they leave trails of compact disks and gum wrappers and leaky pens and electronic gizmos and rock-star posters and dirty socks and dirty dishes and unfinished homework.

Yes, teens' clutter output is prodigious, but what's truly amazing is that they don't seem to know they're doing it. How many of you recognize the following conversation?

Parent: "Pick that up."

Kid: "What?"

Parent: "That. Right there. You just dropped that."

Kid: "Dropped what?"

Parent: "That! Can't you see that? Pick it up and put it away."

Kid: "Oh, that. OK." (Walks away)

Parent: "Where are you going?"

Kid: "My room."

Parent: "Well, pick that up and take it with you."

Kid: "What?"

Parent: "Aaaaauuugh!" (Bursts into flames)

In households where both parents work outside the home, I don't know how families survive clutter buildup. The trip-and-fall hazard must be extremely high. And isn't there a real danger of suffocation from accumulated takeout food cartons?

Even with me working at home all the time, feverishly stowing stuff in my teens' rooms until they go off to college, we have plenty of clutter.

If sociologists studied our clutter, they'd go away thinking my family had two major interests in life:

1) Reading. Which is true. Open books and magazines cover every horizontal surface at our house, including the floors.

2) Shoes. We tend to be a barefoot family indoors, which means all of us shed our shoes as soon as we land at home. Our sons' elaborate sneakers are so large they look like furniture. My wife has - conservative estimate - eleventy-hundred pairs of shoes, and she apparently believes they should be out on display rather than tucked away in a dark closet.

Empty pairs of shoes sit at odd angles all around our house, as if a cocktail party had been vaporized, leaving behind only the footwear. Or, as if the Rapture occurred and God said to the assembled, "You can all go to heaven, but your shoes stay here!"

Once a week or so, we have the Great Shoe Roundup at our house, corralling them in closets, chasing down strays.

Here's how I announce that it's time to herd the footwear. I say, "Hey there, buckaroos. Pick up those shoes."

And my sons say, in unison: "What shoes?"


Redding, Calif., author Steve Brewer's latest book is called "Boost."
Contact him at ABQBrewer(at)

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