The Tyranny of Neat People and the Antidote, in a “Magical” Little Book on Tidying

For a while now, I’ve been ranting to myself about what I call the tyranny of neat people.

It happens whenever I stumble on one of those New Year’s articles about de-cluttering your home and transforming your life. You’ll feel better, work more productively and become a more perfect human being, they say, if only your house is tidy.

Here’s what I say: maybe the neat people have simply done a better job of public relations for their decidedly limited comfort zone. What if it’s the slobs of the world (including me) who are more flexible, more tolerant and more able to be happy and productive in any environment? I can function in your pristine sanctuary or my own mess; I don’t feel compelled to be tidying up all the time. Given a choice between spending my spare minutes reading and tidying, I’ll pick the book or The New York Times almost every time. I say “almost” because that’s the kind of gal I am—a slob, but flexible, able to adapt to the moment. Between deadlines, or if company’s coming or if the spirit moves me, I clean up. My space is never perfect, but hey, neither is life.

So I generally91RY2EnQHGL._SL1500_ avoid how-to’s that purport to tell me how to win friends and influence people by rearranging my closets. Recently though, I came across one that was different: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press). The title’s hyperbole nearly sent me running for a pile of half-read New Yorkers, but I found myself liking Kondo’s KonMari Method.

Most organizers have rules: they tell you to ditch anything you haven’t used in the past year or get rid of one item for each new one you buy. I agree that most of us suffer from the scourge of too much stuff, but numeric parameters seem so arbitrary and more than a little wasteful. Kondo, a Japanese cleaning consultant whose book has sold some 2 million copies, adds a brilliant criterion: eliminate things that don’t “spark joy.” That’s a concept I can live with. Under this rule, I keep the stack of dictionaries that reside on the ottoman in my living room, including the yellowing volume I got in Miss Rodgers’ third grade class. It lay unopened for decades, and if I’d followed the typical decluttering rule, I would never have had the chance to share it with my daughter in her third grade year. I look at it and think of Miss Rodgers. And my daughter.


Kondo does advocate clearing out far more stuff than I ever would. She has her clients reduce their belongings to the essentials; in fact, her recipe for reducing your library and hiding what’s left in the closet makes me feel like a character from Fahrenheit 451. And her habit of personifying possessions falls somewhere between endearing and daft; she thanks items she’s giving away and worries how the rest like to be stored. Sometimes she seems a little OCD; she unpacks her handbag every night and repacks it every morning—a ritual that had me muttering, “There’s NO WAY this woman has kids.”

But I do like Kondo’s sympathetic tone and graceful prose. Many of her ideas are interesting, like arranging clothing in a drawer so they stand side by side, rather than in piles; I might try that one of these days. Kondo advises against such a piecemeal approach; she says you should organize your entire house once, and you’ll never have to do it again. That’s too much for this slob.

But the idea of eliminating things that don’t spark joy—that’s a keeper. I’ve already used it to streamline some overstuffed shelves, and, to my surprise, it transformed the decision process. So now I have a new rant: tidying doesn’t have to be tyranny; it’s how you go about it.

 Originally published on


Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

This post originally appeared on

Welcome to my table!

I’m a writer and editor who is curious about, well, everything–and I’m lucky enough to be able to satisfy that curiosity through my work. I spend some of my time these days writing about food, so there’s plenty of that here. But I also write about many other topics, from health and the environment to business and technology, from art and culture to parenting and other lifestyle issues. There’ll be a little of a lot of different things here; hence the site’s name: The World at my Table. Pull up a keyboard and have a seat.