Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ride the Trolley

Several years ago our family traveled to Yosemite National Park. We flew into San Francisco and spent a couple of days there. I had been to San Francisco a number of times before I married. To my young eyes, the city seemed nearly magical, with its steep hills floating into bay and the fog moving across it like a live thing. Most of all, I loved the trolley. The charm and the eclectic oddity of this place in American life was captured in one ride down from downtown to the water's edge. The brightly painted exterior, the little bell that sounded at each stop, and the sea breeze blowing through the open windows combined to transport me to a place that wasn't quite home but felt like it should be.

Our visit twenty years later was a homecoming. The one thing I longed to do was to take my husband on the trolley to the sea. I wanted to share with him the joyful memory and make a new one. It was nearly the first thing we did when we arrived. We went to the spot where the trolley turns around on the street and waited. We hopped on. We rode slowly down the busy streets, with the bell tinkling and the bay peeking out of the horizon in front of us. When we landed, my husband bought a small replica of the trolley for our Christmas tree. Each year, I put it on the tree and smile.

The trolley runs smoothly on a track that has been planned and laid out for it. It doesn't have to find a way through the traffic each time it goes. It follows the lines of wires overhead and moves steadily and surely toward its objective. Every day it carries different people with differing agendas. It travels through different kinds of weather. But the track is always the same.

The busiest areas of the house should be set up so that they operate like the trolley. Actions should run along the lines that have been laid out and which lead, in the most economical way, to a destination. When you do an activity, the necessary materials and tools should be located within an arm's reach and easy to put away with one movement. This way, your repeated daily efforts can run down established lines with little fuss or extra effort.

The best way to start is to think about what you do most often in a busy area of the house. Gather every thing you need for that activity. Set it in a large laundry basket or box, or put it out on a surface in front of you. Now think: how can you arrange these things in this space so that you don't have to take steps to reach each one? Where can you set them so that they are right where you are working or playing? Store them so that they can be retrieved and put away with the fewest movements possible. One, at most two, movements is your goal for each object, each tool.

You may find that you have to remove some of the objects that aren't really needed in this part of the house -- that large canning pot you never use, the pile of cookbooks you look at once a year, the magazines nobody reads. You may need to purchase open containers to organize some of the tools and supplies. Do it. This is a worthy investment of time and money which will pay large dividends over the days ahead.

When I set up my kitchen this way, I can make a cake in less that five minutes. That's because I never have to step away. I set up a baking center right by the fridge. Everything I need to bake with is either in the fridge, in the drawer right in front of me, or in the cabinets above me and below me. Does it make a difference? You bet. When I cook in a kitchen that has not been planned in this way, the same cake takes 25 minutes.

This arrangement does more than save time. It means my kitchen space stays tidier. Some of the clean-up can happen while I am working, since each thing is put away right there. The rest takes a couple of minutes. Before I walk away, the mess and the clutter have been replaced by a clean counter top.

You can apply this same principle to any area of the house: garage, bedrooms, office, family room. Everything that is used often can be organized around the space where people sit or stand. Store things at the place where they are used, and neatness follows naturally.

Lay down some tracks. Ride the trolley through your traffic. It's the best way to go.

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