National Post Consider them postmodern valets (November 12, 2003)

National Post - Wednesday November 12th, 2003

Iain Duncan Smith was recently dumped as leader of Britain's Conservative party. Many claimed it followed upon wage-fiddling complaints concerning his payrolled wife Betsy. Having worked with a personal organizer (human, not electronic) for two months, I submit that the real reason for Duncan-Smith's ouster was his egregious lack of organizational skills.

A Sunday Telegraph commentator writes: "During the Betsygate row, the picture has emerged of utter chaos at the heart of [Duncan-Smith's] organization -- large backlogs of correspondence, no filing system, ... and confusion over finances." Poor sod! If only he had hired a personal organizer, he might have reversed the course of British history.

The ability, but more important, the never-flagging drive to organize one's environment is a genetic gift, under-appreciated by those so endowed. Unlucky in my DNA, I grieve for that missing gene. When I look at the workspace of those so favoured, I smolder with organizational skills envy.

By the standards of the "Professional Organizers in Canada" I wasn't a lost cause by any means. Nevertheless, before Susan Portnoy of "Organized Success" came to my rescue, my antediluvian filing scheme was the Sea King of writing support systems. It stalled and crashed repeatedly from the stress of triaging non-stop incoming data. Article on Barbra Streisand: file under "Celebrity Culture" or "Useful Idiots of The Left"? Decisions, decisions.

My fantasies don't revolve around lotharios under the Tuscan sun. They have more to do with clean desktops, beautifully ordered files, a lid for every Tupperware, and photograph albums as opposed to shoeboxes. My icon is Samantha from the old Bewitched series, who could spring-clean her entire house by wriggling her nose. For people like me it is hell getting organized, but we sense what heaven it is to be it. To my credit, I am at least ashamed of my organizational deficits.

And so I admit to being somewhat offended, but mostly puzzled at the current trend amongst young women writers for celebrating as desirable, even lovable, their own or their fictional heroine's propensity to domestic chaos. They seem to take unbridled glee in revealing proofs of their slovenliness, culinary ineptitude, and failures of time-related etiquette.

I consider this, as I sort my clippings by topic, and Susan creates folder headings on her label gizmo (She doesn't just teach, she mucks in). Men don't boast about being disorganized, I note. We decide it is blowback from pre-feminism days when a serene and organized household was associated with unfulfilled homemakers. In appropriating the traditional role of the domestically irresponsible husband, the Bridget Joneses of this era feel empowered and equal to men.

That's all very well for the modern female ego, but the house is still a mess, eh? And what about children who cherish routine, predictability and order? But ideology is no respecter of children's best interests. And thus are lifestyle skills -- both career and domestic -- lost to the next generation.

Portnoy says, "Organization is a survival skill of the 21st century ... I don't know of anyone who is totally disorganized who is successful." I believe her. Organization is like fitness. We know what has to be done for optimal health, but many of us can't do it alone. Personal trainers, once considered a decadent luxury, are a commonplace today. So it will be with personal organizers.

Susan has rescued marriages of organizationally mismatched mates, salvaged parent-teen relationships, and saved employees their jobs. She is one of 171 Canadian professional organizers, almost triple the 2001 figure. The rising numbers reflect Boomer demographics. My sense of urgency about getting organized had much to do with diminishing memory and fear of leaving my kids with a terrible mess when I die. Susan says this is a common motivation amongst her clients.

My files are now colour-coded, neat, accessible, logically divided, -- in short, organized. I am sleeping through the night. What I thought was insomnia was fear of losing control of the supply line to my ideas. If I wanted her to, Susan would also happily organize my kitchen, my library, or my garage. She could put my estate in order. She can create scrapbooks (scrapbook outsourcing is very hot right now), or plan and monitor a move to another home. She has organized individuals, families of 10, and entire businesses. All her clients express the sense of liberation from stress that I feel.

In the old paradigm, the wealthy paid servants and told them what to do. The new service providers -- trainers, organizers, life coaches, nutritionists -- are "postmodern valets": we pay them, but they tell us what to do.

Knowledge is today's wealth. Computers make it work and grow, but our capital rests in the humble filing cabinet.

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