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My month trying out Marie Kondo's Method

It was a good month.

Socks and tights are seen arranged in a drawer in small boxes at a home in Washington, DC, as recommended by Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo, creator of the 'KonMari' method, on January 18, 2019. (Photo: Caitlin Wilson/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Marie Kondo's 2014 book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, has sold over 9 million copies.
  • The Japanese organizer's success has turned into a popular Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.
  • De-cluttering your home has an emotional resonance, says Kondo.

A bad habit: I tend to avoid popular trends. While it saves me the hassle of terrible pop music and "influencer" nonsense, gems slip by. I was aghast when the KonMari Method first appeared in 2014. Clean up your room? Spark joy? Treat your socks with respect? Around the corner I'd be sold workshops on adulting. Not interested.

My curiosity was piqued, however, when I stumbled upon an article discussing the Shinto influence on Marie Kondo's techniques. In college I was enamored with the Shinto myths of Amaterasu and her spirited brother, Susano-O. While Zen eclipsed other Japanese folk religions on the global stage, Kurosawa fans recognize the Shinto influence on samurai culture. I reconsidered tidying. Bad habits are what the Konmari Method are all about breaking, after all.

The experiment actually began thanks to the Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which my wife got hooked on. Timing was fortuitous: I had just read the Shinto article, so when she suggested we give it a shot I was game. Besides, tidying has never been completely absent from my life. For many years, when I suffered from major panic attacks, cleaning was one activity that focused my mind enough to keep the terror at bay. Organizing, vacuuming, discarding (or donating), and dusting have an emotional appeal, the very basis of the her method.

Order is genetically encoded in us. Our ancestors had no closets or online organizing tools. Recalling where scarce assets were hidden was an essential skill. Hoarding is an evolutionary glitch in the matrix, with corresponding neuroses. It only occurs in times of excess. For most of history, such a concept was not available.

As I wrote last week, mental health issues are increasing in America. Gathering data from 2005–2017, a team led by Jean Twenge discovered that the most affected demographic is the wealthiest among us. Humans are not designed for surplus. (One positive thanks to Kondo: the resale market is growing faster than fast fashion.) Simultaneously, scarcity mechanisms encoded in our biology for times of famine cause us to collect. Yet the more we're tasked to track, the less happy we are. The more "stuff," the greater the cognitive burden.

10 Amazing Tips from Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

Put into perspective, Kondo's bestseller, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, makes sense. There is room for cherished mementos that "spark joy," but not so much for empty boxes. Sort your belongings by category, not location. Fold better. Hold onto cherished photos, discard the rest. Reduce, reduce, reduce; discover what's really necessary.

I thought I had learned this lesson before. I moved to San Francisco shortly after graduating college in 1997. Life happened and I only stayed for half the year, so back to Jersey went my life. UPS went on strike on my way home. This resulted in two weeks of living out of one suitcase.

What I discovered then is what I rediscovered upon moving to Los Angeles in 2011, which is what I also rediscovered during our first weekend trying out the KonMari Method: we own much more than we need. Though simplistic on the screen, sorting, collecting and discarding objects is cathartic. Like emotional baggage, you realize how much you're holding onto, as well as how good it feels to let it all go.

And so my wife and I began cleaning on another level. A caveat: we didn't follow instructions perfectly. Kondo suggests cleaning by category. For example, pile all of your books in the center of a room. All clothing, kitchenware, and so on. Instead, we tackled the project room by room, with some categorizing, such as the linen closet and bathrooms.

From our closets went nine bags to the Salvation Army, plus items I've been holding "just in case," like a giant backpack I used to travel around Europe in 2000 and the comic book collection I'd stowed in a box in high school and never opened again. Two sets of utensils are unnecessary for two people. Do we really need a few dozen mugs? Of course not. Is my life enhanced by old magazines I never thumb through? The answer is obvious.

Organizing guru Marie Kondo arrives for the 91st Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019. Photo credit: Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images

Yet, as mentioned, sentimental objects are different. Magazine cover stories I wrote warrant filing for the simple reason that they transport me back to a place and time: sitting across from a still-bearded Matisyahu as he prayed over his lunch in downtown Manhattan; drinking too many cappuccinos with Karsh Kale at Cafe Orlin while discussing his latest experimentation with Indian electronica; chatting with the creative Anoushka Shankar about continuing her father's incredible legacy. Moments before all of my writing lived on a screen are part of an autobiography I'd like to track.

Placing your life into a pile is an incredible way to grapple with your agency. Sure, this "collection of things" might not be the "true you," but it represents facets of your existence. Which of them would be required if you lived a life of scarcity? What would really matter then? How about a life of enough instead of excess? Such questions are impossible to ignore when everything is spread out in front of your eyes.

Cathartic, yes, but also healing. Also fun. There are many types of work; the most draining and exhilarating inspire emotions. The reorganization process is aspirational. You're putting your life back together — a life you aspire to, one of order and need, not chaos and gluttony. As Kondo writes, you might be angry at your family because your space is cluttered. We are animals of our environment. Create space in yours and emotional clarity ensues.

Yet I must push back on her feelings about books. Not that I hold onto all of them. I've donated more than I've kept, but the 300 or so surrounding me remain an important aspect of my identity. Perhaps it's not Shinto, but another Japanese word contradicts Kondoism: tsundoku. Unread books elevate your space.

As with closets, dressers, and cabinets, Kondo asks that you move all of your books into a pile in the center of your room. She continues,

"The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it."

I might not give agency to inanimate ideas like gods, but books hold a certain power. (The power is the experience of having read it, of course. But still.) I agree with Kondo, that "you are going to read very few of your books again." At least I have the excuse of citation: many of the underlines and notes make their way into articles and books. Books are also how I like to decorate.

It's the one step I'm not ready to take. Maybe in the future — never is a promise you should never make. Regardless, Marie Kondo has made a huge impact in our home. I'm just not letting her invade my library, though… yet.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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