New Year’s resolutions are, for the most part, ridiculous…rarely more than inane exercises in futility.
Though well-intentioned, they quickly become empty promises made in the hopes of improving various aspects of one’s life: lose weight, get in shape, make more money, quit beating the dog, visit really old people you don’t know on Tuesday afternoons, read more, watch less television, limit your daily Facebook time to seven hours, try to understand a cricket match.
Okay. We all get it. And, ultimately, we all fail. After all, not even the Brits can explain a cricket match, a game they foisted on India as punishment for leaving the United Kingdom.
Since New Year’s Day I have heard from no fewer than six people—each of whom I find to be intelligent and reasonable folks who seem also to bathe regularly—that they had resolved to “declutter” their lives.
I don’t believe I had ever heard the word “declutter,” although I sensed correctly what it might mean. The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as a verb, “to remove unnecessary items from (an untidy or overcrowded place).”
It seems like an awkward way of saying “getting rid of stuff,” as in “this year I’m getting rid of stuff.” The idea of decluttering one’s garage or office is one thing, but one’s life seems somewhat dire. For instance, can one’s spleen be considered “an unnecessary item” in an overcrowded place?
Merriam-Webster, which has been explaining words and their usages since 1828, noted that the word was first used in 1950. How they know that is anybody’s guess. Maybe some British guy said it first in 1933 in a London pub but nobody thought to write it down.
What I can’t believe is that declutter is a whole year older than me and I’ve never heard it until this year.
My mother kept a tidy house (with the help of a maid who came on Tuesdays) and she insisted that my sister and I maintain a level of cleanliness in our rooms that would have impressed God. But she never said, “Go declutter your room or there’ll be no dessert.”
Merriam-Webster, which still publishes dictionaries in book form so that short folks will have something to sit on during meals, has a feature on its website that lists, by year, when words and phrases were first used. Once again, I don’t know how they know this stuff but it’s mildly entertaining to note some of the entries.
For instance, the phrase “funny farm” was first used in 1950 to commemorate the Surgeon General’s acknowledging that “being a whack-job” was a real thing. So too was “empty suit” coined, which no doubt refers to politicians. “H-bomb” also came along in 1950, which is totally understandable. “Test-drive” came into use that year as well. Was this phrase a marketing device? Were customers once not allowed to drive a car before they bought it? Maybe a “trial spin” was allowed.
That mid-century year also saw the phrase “training wheels” come into use. What were they called before that? Seriously, I want to know.
“Pastitsio” also made its American debut in 1950. The Greeks, who derived both the word and the dish from the Italians, had been using that word even before they got around to inventing democracy. It was Socrates’s favorite brown-bag lunch, which he frequently ate on the steps of the Parthenon during his Tuesday dialogues with the Cretans.
I’ve read that the typical American spends the first two-thirds of life accumulating stuff and the last third getting rid of said stuff. Apparently, these phenomena are unique to Americans, as I’ve not seen any mention of Hungarians, for instance, in these studies.
The math is problematic since it’s nearly impossible to accurately divide our lives into thirds. I have no idea when I’ll slip from this mortal coil nor do you. If you miscalculate, you might have a good time accumulating stuff until you’re 50 and not make it to 75, which will leave a house full of crap for your kids to deal with. On the other hand, you might accumulate stuff until you’re 50 and start getting rid of stuff on the 75-year plan and live to 90, which leaves you living for 15 years with nothing but a pair of flannel pajamas, a thread-bare Barcalounger and a tea kettle.
Now, to answer your question from a paragraph ago: Yes, there have been actual studies about this stuff.
I haven’t read too deeply because I don’t have to. Some things in life are clearly obvious. I remember when Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) handed out his monthly Golden Fleece Awards which commemorated wasteful government spending. One time, he skewered the Office of Education for spending $219,592 in a “curriculum package” to teach college students how to watch television. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but most of us had learned to watch television by the time we got to college.
I put that in the same category of the Trump children being Court-ordered to take classes in how not to steal from a charity. “Don’t do it,” seems to be about the only thing that can be said about the matter.
I would like to spend the rest of my life being paid to discover the obvious and then make the talk show circuit to talk about it.
“Well, Conan, you probably have stuff you could get rid of,” I’d say with commanding authority. “At least that’s what my research has shown.”
Then he’d laugh and cut to a commercial begging the television audience to buy stuff.
Decluttering is a necessary step in life, I guess. I’ve found myself decluttering from time to time, like when I take out the trash every afternoon.
I recently read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an elderly couple who have lived in a Georgetown brownstone for forty-five years. They are moving to a smaller, one-level apartment just a block or so away. To help facilitate their move, they needed to “downsize,” a word first used in 1975, although do we really know that?
Anyway, this couple decided to declutter by hosting a downsizing party.
They had food and mimosas and they invited people they knew and people they didn’t know to come to their brownstone and help themselves to the books, lamps, dishes, glassware, candles, table linens, collectibles, political campaign buttons and bumper stickers, and cook ware that had been accumulated over forty-five years. No money exchanged hands and the couple didn’t have to set up displays on folding tables in the driveway, not that Georgetown brownstones have driveways. They also didn’t have to gather up what didn’t sell and schlepp it to the local thrift shop.
Karen and Fritz Mulhauser, the hosts of this party, told the reporter that they had fun and had accomplished their goal of decluttering as they downsized. It was what might be called a “win-win” situation, a term first used in 1962.
Chances are pretty good that I’m in the last third of my life, so I’m doing a bit of decluttering every day. The problem, of course, is the amount of time spent having wistful moments of nostalgia with every item I pick up. One of these days, maybe, we’ll “Mulhauser,” a term I coined just this past week.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Regarded by many as a Greek lasagna, pastitsio is based on the Italian pasticcio, which means “mess.” This recipe is adapted from The Food and Wine of Greece by Diane Kochilas.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 onions, diced
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef
1 large garlic clove, minced
3 cups diced tomatoes
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground allspice
4 whole cloves, minced
10-15 black peppercorns, crushed
1 ½ pounds penne
4 oz. Kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese, grated
4 cups béchamel
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 cup fresh ricotta, or myzithra, drained
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil and sauté the onion until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add meat and continue stirring until meat begins to brown. Add garlic, tomatoes, spices, pepper and salt. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 35-40 minutes, until liquid has been absorbed and meat is cooked. Remove pan from heat, let meat cool slightly. Remove whole spices.
While meat is simmering, boil the pasta to al dente. Remove, drain and toss with a little of the oil and half the grated cheese.
Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly oil a large (9×13) baking pan.
Make béchamel. Melt 4 Tbs. butter, add 4 Tbs. flour, stirring to make a roux. Slowly add 4 cups of warm milk, stirring until fully incorporated. Whisk in the egg yolks, ricotta cheese and half the remaining grated cheese.
Toss the pasta with a little of béchamel. Spread half of it on the bottom of a large baking pan. Pour in meat sauce, spreading evenly over pasta. Sprinkle with 1 – 2 tablespoons grated cheese. Make a second layer of the pasta. Pour béchamel over pasta, making sure it’s evenly spread over top of pan. Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese.
Bake for about 45 minutes, until béchamel thickens and swells and a golden brown crust forms on top.