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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Purge - Part III: The Restoration

We started moving things back into our office last night, but so far it has been a slow, careful process. I'm putting a lot of effort into organizing things so that it will be easier to keep them organized.

While HM was at her dance class, I was busy assembling a new media center shelf and a bookcase. Both new pieces have black finishes, which will match my computer desk better than the old wood-finish stuff and fit in with the zen dojo them better.

The new media shelf has more space than our old one (a short computer cart which, if I recall, was left behind in 2000 by the previous tenants in our duplex), so in addition to the TV and printer it will now house some video game systems. The TV looks more than a bit out of place now, perched high on a shelf. It kind of needs to be replaced anyway (it's good to have red colors in your screen), but that's not in the budget for this overhaul. The bookcase replaces two separate bookcases that had been stacked (somewhat precariously), so in addition to coherence, it also introduces some stability into the room, and it balances out the new media tower nicely.

By far the most time-consuming project was loading all the computer equipment back onto my desk. I consider desk organization and cable control essential to the cleanliness of the office.

Back in the dorm I had an absolutely monstrous computer desk name The Beast. Pretty much everyone I knew helped me move it...once. I think only my friend and occasional roommate Kevin ever subjected himself to it multiple times. During grad school, I finally sent The Beast into retirement at my parents' house (where it serves with distinction -- and weight -- to this day) and instead just used one of the desks that was included in my room. In both arrangements, though, I always spent a great deal of time either on my back under the desk or hanging upside down off the back to connect wires, so when I went shopping for a new computer desk after we got married, I picked out a desk on wheels for easy access to the back.

The main flaw in that plan is that, while my desk moved easily, the furniture around it didn't, so it had to move out at least three feet for me to get behind it. Unfortunately, most of the wires and cables behind it weren't that long, and even those that were would only get in the way of the wheels. That meant that wiring things and cleaning behind it was just about as hard as with a stationary desk. For example, when I untangled the rat's next of wires last week, I found 3 USB cables, 2 power supplies, 2 ethernet cables, and 15 feet of coiled coax that weren't attached to anything. I know that when I unplugged their associated devices at some point, I decided it was easier to just grab different wires than to untangle those, but it was still eye-opening.

In order to preserve my desk's mobility, as I moved equipment back onto it, I very carefully coiled each cable and strapped it to the back using Velcro loops. I mounted all of my power strips on the back, too, so that nothing at all is on the floor. There is still a limit to how far it can move away from the wall, but it's now pretty easy to move it out far enough for me to sit on the floor behind it...or to vacuum.

And let me tell you: the vacuuming is key. There were dust bunnies back there before. Ok, calling them "bunnies" is a little kind. Remember the Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs drinks the Jekyll & Hyde potion? Yeah, that kind of bunny.

So as things stand now, Gecko IV, the current incarnation of my desktop computer, is once again connected, powered-up, and humming (if by "humming" you mean "buzzing quietly in a manner that suggests my CPU fan's days may be numbered in small integers"). My primary computer and math reference books are back in the room, at home on the new bookcase. The TV, printer, and DVD/VCR are setup again, and ready to entertain.

There's still quite a bit of work to do, but the end of the tunnel is brightly lit and looming large before us. By the end of the week we will have filtered out some more junk, shredded some more non-essentials, and packed away the stuff to keep. The rest will be moved back into the closet, the desks, and other places where space has been freed for it.

We're on the home stretch now.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Purge - Part II: The Cleansing

After nearly a week's work, our home office is finally really clean. It's also nearly empty, but that was all part of the plan. We got all the furniture cleared out or rearranged, which allowed us to give the carpet a good work-over with the vacuum cleaner.

Bless her, Heather Marie has spent most of the weekend sorting, filing, and shredding papers. Some of the records we found were pretty enlightening. For instance, one thing we found was a shipping receipt for an ethernet card...a 10 megabit card...shipped to my old dorm March of 1999. So not only was it a nine year-old receipt for an item I no longer own, it must have been moved from one residence to another at least 4 times. Ouch.

So, aside from some minor nostalgic and historic value, we're not losing much except for old, useless paperwork. We have four trash bags of shredded paper so far, and I expect that we'll end up with another before we're done. Of course, none of that includes the bags of paper that didn't need to be shredded!

And that's just the paper debris! Glancing around our living room staging area, I also see half a dozen books that will soon find a new home, another score or so books that will be boxed up and put in the attic, and an entire box full of non-functional or obsolete electronics.

The electronics will be heading to recycling later this week, as will nearly all of the paper. In fact, all told, we won't actually be throwing away very much stuff as trash, which is good, I think. Bully for us!

As it stands now, the office is mostly empty and ready to receive its trimmed and culled contents. The really interesting part of the experience, I think, will span the next three days, as we decide what really goes back in, where it goes, and what else we're getting rid of.

That will be the test: Can we remain disciplined enough as we restock the office to do whatever it takes to minimize the clutter and set ourselves on a path to continued organization?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Purge - Part I: The Beginning

Once upon a time, when we first moved into our house, we set aside one of our front rooms to serve as a home office. My computer lived in there, along with our networking equipment, musical instruments, cameras, and other typical home office accoutrements. Decorated in a zen dojo style, it was to be a calm oasis of quiet contemplation, intent productivity, and uplifting art.

Yeah, right.

It actually served those purposes fairly well for a while. The oriental motif hasn't ever been executed to our satisfaction, but hints of the flavor are there. From time to time it has fallen into varying degrees of disarray, but after a few hours of decluttering it always bounced back...mostly. In truth, we seldom got it back to 100% of what it like was before. Usually the best we managed was 98% or so, which didn't seem bad at the time, but was actually just good enough to give the impression of completely restored order.

The problem with that is that the second time around, we'd only get about 98% of the previous state, or about 96% of the original order. The 2% lost in each cycle would just be little things pack-ratted here, some minor paperwork awaiting filing stuffed into a drawer there, a piece of old computer gear stuck over yonder. Nothing major or disturbing, just...cruft.

Unfortunately, that organizational entropy adds up, and the deterioration only accelerated after my iBook evolved into my primary computer a couple of years ago. After 20 or so straightening cycles, my guess is that we're down to about 60% of our ideal organization. At that level, the clutter is really distracting, and when I recently found myself wanting to use our office space for work again, I was simply unable to mentally function in the room.

The only solution was a real purge and intervention.

In order to understand how profound this action is for me, let me give you an idea: If you're familiar with Clean Sweep on TLC, know that I cannot watch that show. Watching other people throw things out like that literally and physically stresses me to the point that I start to become ill. I'm not nearly as bad as most of their guests, but on a spectrum between those people and a monk, I know which end I'm closer to.

Hi, I'm Ryan, and I am a packrat. It's something that I'm aware of, and I'm working on it.

We thought about trying a less drastic, more incremental approach, but we were afraid that it would just amount to another straightening cycle, and that we'd let it drag on until we lost our will. By completely purging the room, we can keep our momentum going, while the mess it makes of the rest of the house will motivate us to finish it quickly.

So for the past two nights, we've spent several hours removing everything from the office. The only things that are staying are a couple of pieces of furniture that won't fit through the door without being disassembled, and they may come out yet. Once everything is out, we'll be thoroughly cleaning the room, assessing our needs for new or different storage and furniture, then sorting through everything to decide what goes it, what goes elsewhere, and what simply goes away.

I'm really determined that most of it is going away. I really want to try to achieve that calm zen oasis we've been aiming for these past 6 years.

When we're done, I'll post "after" pictures. I'm not posting any before pics because a) we don't really have any and it's already too late, and b) I'd be too embarrassed to show them to anyone.

Wish us luck!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

We went out to dinner at the Celtic Grill tonight, intending to meet up with the other Northwest Arkansas bloggers. Unfortunately, we either got there too late, or we couldn't pick them out of the crowd. We really need a cheer or something to find each other next time.

Even if we'd been able to find them, the prospect of enduring the noise and crowd while waiting for supper was daunting, and we didn't want to be out too late. I'm sure the company would've been worth it, but we finally decided that O'Charley's sounded Irish enough, so we ate there instead. Sorry, guys.

In other holiday news, I spent a few minutes this afternoon explaining the significance of St. Patrick to some friends. Having grown up in Arkansas, it isn't at all strange to me for someone to not be familiar with even famous saints. You've got Google and Wikipedia handy, so you can go read Patrick's biography for yourself. The gist of what they wanted to know was why a 4th century Roman-British missionary should be important to non-Irish, non-Catholic, or even non-Christian 21st century Americans.

For the full-length answer, I highly recommend Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. The nutshell is this: Europe's emergence from the dark ages was heavily aided by the monastic tradition of Christian scholarship that had been preserved in Ireland. No Patrick, no Christianity. No Christianity, no monks. No monks, no reseeding of Western Civilization.

That's enormously simplified, but you get the gist. You really should read the book.

Despite being raised in the Methodist church, I really do think that we Protestants threw out some good ideas with our break from Rome, with saints among the best. Disregarding issues that many Protestants have with venerating and praying to saints, I think we have given up a wonderful source of inspiration and role-models. I grew up knowing all the "real" saints: the Apostles, the four Evangelists, Paul, etc, but it wasn't until later that I learned of the multitude of other saints.

I think that's a real shame. Living up to the examples of the well-known saints is a pretty lofty goal, and their life experiences often seem far-removed from outs. Fortunately, there's probably a saint who faced spiritual trials and burdens similar to yours. They triumphed over their obstacles, and so can you.

So even though Patrick the Man is obscured by the shrouds of legend, let's all take a moment today to consider Patrick the Saint -- perhaps the only saint whose day is widely celebrated by nearly all Christian denominations -- and to think of the myriad other saints whose lives could be examples and inspirations for us as well.