Americans' lives? Too cluttered.

  • Article by: HOWARD MANSFIELD
  • Updated: September 25, 2013 - 9:30 PM

Both physically and virtually, it’s getting crowded around here. Progress is possible.

Dave Seymour/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

Photo: Dave Seymour • Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT,

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They have become a defining characteristic of the roadside, wedged in among the malls and fast-food franchises — barracks-like rows of buildings with small garage doors, surrounded by a fence. A gated enclave for excess stuff.

There are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in America, or more than 7 square feet for every, man, woman and child in the country. It’s now “physically possible that every American could stand — all at the same time — under the total canopy of self-storage roofing,” boasts the Self Storage Association.

There are about 51,000 storage facilities in the country — more than four times the number of McDonald’s.

The storage shed is a symptom of our cluttered lives. Clutter is the cholesterol of the home; it’s clogging the hearth.

The “Clean Sweep” team from the television show of that name usually hauls away about half a ton of trash from each house that it rescues from clutter. (Which may explain why 23 percent of Americans admit to paying bills late because they can’t find them, and why 25 percent of people with two-car garages have to park their cars outside.)

“We have too much. We’re overhoused, overclothed, overfed and overentertained,” said Don Aslett, getting right to the point.

Aslett would know; he’s been poking around houses for 50 years. In college, Aslett started what has become one of the country’s largest cleaning companies, and his books on clutter helped to establish the genre.

People call Aslett, saying, “We don’t know how all this stuff got here.” Think of it as a whodunit. He solves the mystery and gently interrogates the guilty. Ask yourself: “Does this item enhance your life?” If not, get rid of it.

We’re crowding ourselves out of our houses. And it’s not just stuff. Work has come home.

Home offices are like small, overwhelmed rail yards, heaped with paper and tangled with cords for all the devices associated with a computer (printers, backup hard drives, routers, scanners, backup power, speakers).

The computer or desk is often tagged in a flurry of Post-it notes in an attempt to remember obscure computer prompts. The computer itself presents a virtual heap of e-mails and text, sound, photo and video files.

Entertainment has come home, too. Television sprawls out to 120 or 240 channels or more. There are more TVs than people in the average home.

Adults are looking at screens — televisions, computers, cellphones, even GPS devices — about 8.5 hours a day, according to a study by the Council for Research Excellence. TV ads claim about an hour of each day.

And the time spent watching television — equivalent to 72 days out of each year — continues to increase, alongside the rapid rise of watching online videos.

Somewhere in there, between the physical and virtual clutter, we are losing the ordinary qualities of home — the solitude to recollect, the time for families to talk. (Yet another study has clocked only 14.5 minutes a day of actual conversation between parents and children.)

We are losing the “nothing much” that is home. The room for tumult and quiet, for passing time with friends, for the ordinary pleasures of a day well lived.

A happy home, said the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, frees us to daydream. It allows us to “dream well,” he said, and enlarge our imagination.

Clutter is choking our shelters. Is there any room left for us in our houses?

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