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A pack rat's season of reckoning

When the urge for spring cleaning hits me, I try to lie down until it passes. Life is short. I am a pack rat. The hours I might spend rooting through years of Starbucks receipts or the orange shirts I bought when orange was the new black can be spent on more important things like watching Law & Order or reading magazines where I learn that pink is the new black.

These glorious spring days have been irresistible. But the other day instead of being out with the bonny tulips, I was deep in ratty piles of paper, squeaking over my son's 10-year-old kindergarten class picture and my daughter's brilliant secondgrade writing. I pawed through 50 folders, throwing out old healthcare directories and refiling tax forms. It was fun. I felt powerful. Spring goeth before fall.

Over the years I have proudly developed a system for keeping telephone numbers that would have made sense to my spiritual forebears, the Collier brothers. Twelve years ago, on a visit to Paris, I bought an address book and kept numbers in it for three years. It began to overflow.

Then my brother gave me an electronic Wizard. I entered telephone numbers on the tiny screen and used it for a year in combination with the address book. I left the Wizard in a phone booth. After that I decided that a Rolodex was the answer, and for two years I kept it next to the old address book. Slowly I developed a habit of sliding out the Rolodex card I needed and forgetting to put it back. Instead, I put it somewhere safe.

In recent years, I have started jotting down numbers on whatever happens to be handy: the back of an envelope or a page in my date book or even on my hand -- the original Palm Pilot. So when I need a telephone number, if I haven't washed it off, I have to remember the date when I last spoke with the person -- unless the number happens to be in the Rolodex or the address book or on a saved piece of paper somewhere.

When my sister-in-law asked for my daughter's address at college recently, I couldn't find it. To get my daughter's address, I had to call her. I've memorized her number, which is a lucky thing. When I wanted to call a friend I spoke with early last year, it took almost half an hour to reconstruct our conversation, remember the season in which it took place and finally turn to the date on which I had carefully written her number.

My friends who have Zires or Tungstens, Visors or Clies or Treos laugh at me. PDAs (which once meant public displays of affection, but now stands for personal digital assistant) have changed their lives, they say. "It will change your life" seems to be a line that comes with the product. I don't want to change my life. I just want to be able to find a phone number. Still, I loved the idea that an expensive piece of equipment could solve my problems. The right machine might transform my life into order and simplicity. Once I hot-synced in the data, I would be just like Thoreau at Walden. Everything would begin to make sense.

After several visits to electronics stores, I realized what I needed was a real wizard--the kind with the wand and the pointy hat. There was no Treo or Clie that could scan in everything in my address book, agenda and Rolodex. I decided to create a master list on my computer and transfer it to a PDA. I would be able to find a number or an address in a moment. My life would be changed. No more pack-ratting. I would write a triumphant column about the way I had reorganized.

I've spent two days typing in addresses. I'm less than a third of the way through. By the time I finish, it won't be spring cleaning anymore. I'll be doing summer cleaning and then autumn cleaning. Do other people have fewer numbers? Do they choose an organizing system at birth and stick to it? Do they all have assistants? Dear Reader, I would love to know how you handle this problem. Just please don't send me your address and phone number.

-- Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including "My Name Is Bill," a biography of Bill Wilson the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Domestic Bliss will return next week.

  • A pack rat's season of reckoning

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