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Let’s talk files and piles for a while
Taking back control (of your kitchen drawer)
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Stuart Waterman wrote one of my all-time favourite issues of TNF here. Last month he posed what he termed “the dullest question anyone has ever asked” in our community: “How do you manage your household filing?” It kicked off a not-dull discussion, and as we’re no strangers to the joys of storage solutions here, I asked if he’d wanted to explore it in more depth. I didn’t ask for photos, but am delighted that they’re included. Over to you Stuart …
It’s not just your priorities that change with parenthood. Other previously immutable aspects of life can suddenly reveal themselves to be things we have far more power over than we previously imagined.
If you’re fortunate, work, for example, might turn out to be something you don’t necessarily have to use to define your entire being. That realisation can take some getting your head around.
There’s also the company you keep. Suddenly you may find yourself coming to the conclusion that actually, you don’t have to anchor your entire social life around opportunities to drink alcohol. It can be quite a revelation to have a social life and no (or at least fewer) hangovers.
But wouldn’t you know it, alongside these shifts in the tectonics of your mind come a whole other heap of disturbing, seemingly endless new challenges. For example:
I currently, bewilderingly, cannot control whether or not my child decides to unleash a titanic turd onto the living room floor, a full seven months into potty training.
I currently, tragically, cannot control whether or not my child will decide to gaily toss a full cup of milk across the kitchen, its elegant arc and spin ensuring the contents achieve maximal coverage across the room's major appliances.
I currently, infuriatingly, cannot control my child's instinct to scream and demand 'Move it move it!' from my smart speaker in the middle of my attempt to belatedly acquaint myself with Kate Bush's earlier work.
Before our child was born our household paperwork seemed similarly uncontrollable. It always felt like a whole other entity, an uninvited housemate who would be fed regularly and whose relentless growth failed to respect any boundaries. And so bits of our paper housemate could always be found pretty much everywhere (except where we wanted them to be when we needed them).
A medical appointment letter would gather dust for months on a random shelf. An electrical certificate would mysteriously turn up folded intricately inside a free notebook from a conference nobody could remember attending. A water bill (or three) would be stuffed into the Kitchen Drawer of Doom, where birthday candles, tea towels and utilities paperwork live in illogical disharmony.
Sure, I had a concertina box thing where this kind of stuff could notionally live, but that was already full before my wife and I got together because, well, I was useless at filing back then as well.
It’s the kind of chaos that would send us both into a cold sweat, were it related to work. Because don’t go assuming we’re recent students who haven’t yet adapted to adult life. We've both been working, pretty successfully now, for decades. But while we each bring our own strengths to the relationship, filing is one of those disciplines that has, unfortunately, always fallen between the cracks of our collective capabilities.
And so we’ve just floundered along, getting by with ad hoc ‘solutions’ that nevertheless end up with periodic collective meltdowns where one of us will shriek, “We have to get better at this!” (Before tossing a pile of papers in the air and walking away.)
As we try to reconcile ourselves to the unpredictable whims of a toddler, however, other seemingly uncontrollable things come to seem more like opportunities. Chances to step in and restore order, offering a counterweight to the maelstrom of disarray in other areas.
The Stoics worked all this out ages ago, of course. Their dichotomy of control basically urges us not to expend mental or emotional energy on the things we can't affect. And I suppose a sudden avalanche of uncontrollables is always going to sharpen your focus on those ever-more precious controllables.
For example, when it came to our paperwork, I imagine I was subconsciously thinking: ‘I don’t know if my child is going to suddenly, needlessly smack me across the face today; but what if I could find his birth certificate effortlessly without stomping from room to room, furiously whisperswearing?’
And so, heroically, I set myself the task of creating some kind of household filing system.
I built up to it, mind you, by tackling other irksome household habits we’ve let fester. For example, I created a simple charging station for us adults to charge our devices. In theory this means one place to charge (to rule them all). So no more charging in the kitchen. No more charging by the bed. I'd say it's been 60-70% successful, which is fine with me.
Then I created a place for keys to live. Near the door, but not too near the door; magnetic; quirky enough to charm my wife into using it. There have been no lost key-related blow-ups in months!
But, really, it was all leading up to tackling household filing. The need to organise the stuff you can't chuck because maybe, just maybe, you'll need it down the road. The really tedious shit.
At first I could barely rouse myself to even look at the Ryman website, so I thought I’d ask the members of The New Fatherhood community how they deal with it. It was a little humiliating admitting my incompetence, but it was heartening to hear that every household seemingly has A Pile, because A Pile was a central part of the strategy I was forming in my head.
A Pile is a consolidated, consistent place for the tedious shit to live before it is filed. An inbox, essentially, only nobody can bear to use the term ‘inbox’ because it means, suddenly, your home starts to sound like a mailroom. We lacked A Pile, so step one was to nominate a Pile Shelf. I got a little inbox-style basket and everything.
My wife hated it, as I fully expected, because it sits on, and taints, her lovingly-curated bookshelf. But crucially—and this is a calculation I had made beforehand—she a) knows it solves a problem, and b) lacks the impetus to do anything about it. So now we have A Pile, and let me tell you—it feels glorious.
But God, how do you organise A Pile? The dads came through again, with Neil generously sharing a photo of a pretty stellar low-rise filing drawer, complete with folders and labels and all that jazz.
As more dads drooled over Neil’s setup while admitting to making-do with concertina box things, a thought came to me:
“This is my life now.”
I was in a group conversation about household filing, with only minimal irony involved in the swapping of ideas and strategies. And it felt good. Because here were a group of parents facing, basically, the same challenge: the desire to institute autonomy, order and control in lives that are now largely beholden to uncontrollable little humans.
Did we, ten years ago, all envision ourselves on the internet discussing in-trays, filing cabinets and the point at which a shredder enters the equation? Of course not. We probably thought we’d be discussing music and films and sport(s) and the like forever. (Fortunately we still do that too.)
But there is something undeniably satisfying about working out a solution that helps you move something intimidating into the mind-folder marked ‘Controllable’.
And would you like to see how my supercool new filing system turned out?
Well look, it’s a start.
3 things to read this week
“What Your Favorite Sad Dad Band Says About You” by John Moe in McSweeney’s. This isn’t fair—when did they change the dad rock bands? I thought it was U2, Bruce Springsteen The Rolling Stones, all of those dinosaurs. Apparently not? I felt personally attacked by this article, as have the many dads I sent it to. We used to be with it, but then they changed what “it” was. One quotable part from many: “The National: You should have moved to Brooklyn when you had the chance. You never had the chance.”
“Wirecutter: The Best Partner” by David Kamp in The New Yorker. ”After researching three hundred and fifty-five adult-human archetypes and testing some four dozen, we at Wirecutter confidently offer these suggestions for the partners least likely to disappoint you, what with your high expectations and all.” I’m not going to say anything else—just read it.
“Stop Venting! It Doesn’t Work.” by Gail Cornwall & Juli Fraga in Slate. Better out than in, right? Maybe not. There’s a growing body of research indicating that “getting it off your chest” is like “using gasoline to put out a fire.”
TNF Movie Club #1 “Another Round”
Next week we’ll be getting together for our inaugural movie club and discussing “Another Round” AKA “Druk” with Mads Mikelsen. It’s one of the most fascinating explorations of fatherhood committed to film, and was my favourite movie of 2020. We’ll be talking about the powerful portrayal of father who, approaching middle age, is overwhelmed with existential dread and missed potential, and searches for his answers at the bottom of a bottle, where he finds equal parts joy and despair. Why not join us?
We’ll be doing this on Tuesday March 29th at 10am EST / 3pm GMT / 4pm CEST
It’s available to stream on Now TV in the UK or Hulu in the US, or to rent on Amazon or Apple (thanks to the excellent Reelgood website for making that part easy.)
We’ve also got a weekly cadence of events set up, where we’ll be talking career, well-being, psychedelics, stress and more, all accessible for community members.
One thing to watch with the kids this week
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week I wanted to know “who are your fatherhood role models?”
“For the few years leading up to my becoming a father, the best model I'd ever found was Viggo Mortenson's role in the film Captain Fantastic. I admired how he devoted all of his time and energy to his kids, to building them into brave, critical thinkers and authority-questioners, and how he stood in the fire of his son's rage and grief without wavering, and respected them enough to tell the truth about their mother's death.
I speak in the past tense because everything is different now, and right now my model is my good friend Nathan, who is clear and kind when he communicates with his three-year-old and twelve-year old daughters, and has an amazing ability to empathize, be neutral in conflict, ask consent and offer choice even when he might have an agenda.” Sean
This might sound strange to those who have read it because of his marital actions, but I look to Zachary from Tessa Hadley’s “Late in the Day” a bit. The NYTimes review describes him as, “Zach was an easy and easy-to-love man, full of bustling life…who, at a child’s birthday party, would rather be upstairs with the 4-year-olds than drinking with the adults.” And I look to that as a kinda North Star. Tait
“Atticus Finch is a bit of a role model from literature. He was strong, but also very tender with his kids. I also had a handful of role models as I was in high school who helped shape me and what I understand fatherhood to be. There has definitely been a lot of learning, and unlearning, what it means to be a father, and a man, that my own father didn't really play a role in. I'm thankful for the men in my life who have made themselves available to me so I can learn from watching and talking with them.” Kendall
“My grandad. Took the time to show me how the world works, why things are built this way, taught me things that made me feel alive (fishing, woodwork). He knew what I was interested in and took the time. I guess it was easier for him than for my dad. Would have loved my dad to take the time though.” Paul
“Honestly: Bandit from Bluey.” Hugh
Hard same Hugh. Hard same.
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