Magazines: The good, the bad and the ugly.

We are a magazine-loving family. We subscribe to several: Food and Wine, Golf, Martha Stewart Living (although I boycotted during the prison years on principle alone), Better Homes and Gardens, Parents. Even our oldest gets pumped when her monthly Highlights subscription arrives in the mail.

What is it about the glossy pages of magazines and catalogs—wait. Did I mention catalogs? No? Well, catalogs too. For the life of me I can’t recall ever signing up for one of these. However, they continue to arrive regularly, as a frequent reminder, that at some point in our lives we have bought something from their company, ever tempting us with material goodness, which we cannot responsibly afford. Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Land’s End, L.L. Bean, Williams Sonoma, Patagonia. This time of year I especially love thumbing through Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seeds and Johnny’s seeds, as we anticipate spring gardening in the next month or so.

We love our magazines and catalogs because they inspire us. They help us to find ways to perfect our golf grip and swing. They include tips on how to perfectly frost a cake, and trim back roses, never mind that we’re never going to find the time to make that cake in the first place, or that we don’t even own a rose bush. They include lofty calendars with gentle reminders and suggestions about what we could be doing with our days—planting asparagus, going horseback riding on the beach, doing Pilates practice three times a week, dry cleaning and putting away sweaters for the season, knitting tea-towel dresses for the kids—as if!

Magazines provide images and descriptions of the remodeling process of a small kitchen like ours, and its transformation through the breaking down of walls and building of additions that end up housing a gorgeous granite island, and a complementary backsplash, along with a charming eating nook and of course, stainless steel appliances. This kind of browsing, while hopeful with potential, can be also especially depressing when we reflect on how we rent our small old house and can only imagine one day owning a space as described above. Because the chances of this actually happening—us being able to afford a house in the first place, never mind a fancy remodel, are about one in five billion. We can still dream, right? Magazines help make it so. And, well, there is the fact that we do participate in the annual HGTV Blog Cabin sweepstakes, so our odds of living in some kind of amazing space probably go up to like one in four-point-five billion, right?

For all of the reasons we love our magazines, there is but one reason to both hate and fear them. (Well, apart from the obvious consumerism and materialism, which surely we can and should live without. Our life is perfect and charming as it is and we don’t need anything on those glossy pages to make us happy). No. The reason I’m talking about is—you guessed it—and if you didn’t, shame on you. You should have. Clutter. With a capital C.

If left to their own devices magazines will cleverly stack themselves in both tidy and messy piles on various surfaces and containers in your home. They aren’t picky about where they congregate. They’ll cover up other, far more important mail. They’ll act as a coaster and host a glass or two or three. They’ll even lovingly provide a sturdy surface upon which your toddler or preschooler can work on a coloring page.

I suppose if you are a clutter-lover, or at least more tolerant than me when it comes to clutter, this kind of thing wouldn’t bother you so much. But, if you’ve any sense of the stress and displeasure I feel upon seeing loads of papers gathering about in my house, you might imagine my magazine frustration, which will flare up from time to time.

Let’s start with the food magazines. These are really Liam’s thing, although I do love to browse through recipes and look at food photography from time to time. But the way I look at it is, they are only useful for keeping around if you are going to attempt to make the concoctions they describe on their pages. And, let’s face it. We rarely do. Every now and then one of us will try one of the recipes. Liam recently discovered an amazing one for hot oatmeal, which is definitely a keeper. But for the most part, the magazines are read for entertainment in the moment only, and then left around to collect dust. I wish I could say we go back and look at old issues when we are planning out meals for the week, but we honestly don’t even do that. It’s so much easier to look online, or fall back on our regular dishes. So what’s the point in keeping them around, I ask?

For years I was on Liam’s case about hanging onto dozens and dozens of Gourmet magazines. He insisted and still insists on keeping them since they are no longer in print. Some of them reside now with our cookbooks. Some I’ve made him take down to the basement. And the rest are stashed away in the bottom drawer of a nightstand where no one can see them. Perfectly useful, right?

I’m much better about disposing of my magazines. Typically, when I read through one of them, I’ll fold down the corner of any page that contains something that’s caught my eye. It could be a recipe I’d like to try, or a craft with the kids. Sometimes it’s book or a product review, which I can add to Pinterest or an Amazon wish list. Most often, however, I find I’m drawn to images of other people’s homes and outdoor spaces. So, these pages eventually get ripped out, and sorted into corresponding file folders based on their content (kitchens, wall art, entryways, storage ideas, etc.). This is my pre-Pinterest, non-techy paper system, and I’m sticking to it. And before you go getting all, “But isn’t that cluttersome too?” on me, you should know that my filing system takes up only three-quarters of a bottom desk drawer. If it ever comes time to need more space than that, I know I will have to purge, or at least by then have purchased a damn house already so we can make use of the ideas on those damn pages.

Now, if a month or two or three should go by, and I haven’t dealt with filing or Pinning the pages, I will either make fast work of getting it done, or simply trash the things, trusting that there is nothing on the pages so special that my life would be worse off for having missed out on capturing it in the first place.

So why this love-hate relationship with our maggos, as I affectionately call them? Well, it stems from my childhood, like most of my OCD issues, I guess. You see, one of my parents, and I won’t mention her name here, but her initials are M.O.M., had a bad habit of collecting newspapers and magazines and mail and receipts and coupons, without ever actually regularly looking at or going through any of them. These papers and scraps of papers would pile up on chairs and counters, floors and boxes, and even black trash bags, in our childhood home until one weekend, several times a year, M.O.M. would decide to ‘go through them.’ The only problem with this was, since there were so many to begin with, she rarely made a dent, and to top things off, most items never got trashed, but simply recycled back into some other filing system which nobody but her ever understood. It was total madness.

She will readily admit to being a pack rat. By the way, I love this euphemism for hoarder. Let’s just call it was it was and is. In her defense, she worked a lot. Long hours at the office and long hours being M.O.M. to four kids. She couldn’t keep up with the clutter. I think in her mind she thought that if she threw something away, there was a chance she would miss out on something that would be so harmful it wasn’t worth doing. Like, what if she threw away a newspaper that had an article about my dad and his policing in it? Or a magazine that had the world’s best chocolate chip cookie recipe in it? I think she always thought there would be time in her busy schedule to go through things more thoroughly. But history showed this was not to be the case.

There is still evidence of this clutter in my parents’ home today. M.O.M. is very sensitive to criticism about it, and all of her children as well as her husband are aware of it, and try to steer clear from commenting about it. A few years ago, however, on a trip through their garage, I just couldn’t help it. And so I asked M.O.M. why on Earth did she insist on hanging on to the stack of Family Circle magazines from the 1980s. Or the plastic baggie full of expired coupons from the nineties.

“Leave me alone!” she shouted defensively. Clearly D.A.D. must have been on her case about it too. “Maybe I’m going to read those magazines someday.”

“M.O.M.,” I said, “I’ve never seen you read a magazine. Like ever. In all my thirty-some years.” (Even now that she is partially retired I’ve never seen the woman read a magazine).

But back then, this is what she said: “You can all burn my magazines when I’m dead! How’s that?”

I don’t know why, but her comment struck me as insanely funny. I know I should have been horrified, for that is my normal reaction when anyone I care about carelessly or humorously mentions his or her own death. As it is the source of my greatest anxiety—losing a loved one—I typically recoil when these kinds of comments are made.

That time was different, though. I can recall having the most distinct and vivid image of us all standing around weeping, yet laughing through our tears as we had a bonfire in the backyard, torching all of those old Family Circles and Reader’s Digests. What a loving tribute that would be, huh?

And so, because I do not want to burden my own children with the task of burning my magazines upon my death, brilliant as that plan is, I will continue to go through them, when I can, to keep our house from being overtaken by paper clutter.

I hope they will appreciate this when they are older.


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