Sherry Young: Is a clean, shiny piano the key to happiness?

Published: Monday, March 19 2007 8:45 a.m. MDT

"Homes are for using, not for turning into a museum," I reminded myself as I polished off all the fingerprints from my shiny black baby grand and cleaned the keys, which were mighty sticky. "How many times have I told those kids to wash their hands before they play Grandma's lovely piano," I muttered to myself.

With just two people living in our home, things stay in place most days, and we've gotten used to order, something we certainly did not have when our children were growing up. Sure, it is nice to walk on clean floors and have a place for everything and everything in its place, but it is also nice to have company and grandchildren running all around the house. Like anything in life, I can't have it both ways, even if I were to become a crabby old grandmother who nagged all the time. But there should be a happy medium, and everyone needs to learn respect for order and be willing to clean up after himself.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting book called "The Tipping Point." About midway through he talks about the Power of Context, claiming that we are exquisitely sensitive to changes in context. He then goes about proving his point by citing how crime was diminished in New York City in the 1990s beginning with the "Broken Windows" theory. The brainchild of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, the theory holds that, "If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder and aggressive panhandling are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes."

Kelling was hired by the New York Transit Authority in the mid-1980s, and believing that crime was contagious, he began by "curing" the ills of the subway system. The Transit Authority would not let a train go out of the train yard with graffiti on it. When that began to have a positive impact, they went after the fare beaters, and that helped decrease subway crime overall.

Gladwell states that, "The essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain kinds of environments — that in ways that we don't necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances."

The ideas provoke powerful thoughts about so many situations in life, and perhaps I trivialize these ideas by applying them to keeping a house in order. But honestly, I think it does apply to the everyday basic things we do. It can apply to our personality; after all, what is the term for people who are no longer in control of their emotions — personality disorders. They are no longer "in order."

When I was a mother with young children, housework seemed like trying to push a rock up a hill — drudgery. And that rock would roll back down the minute I let go. It is that way with paying our bills or anything else of a continuous nature that we are responsible for, and we can't always be perfect.

I like what Gunilla Norris tells us in her book "Being Home": "When we clean and order our homes, we are somehow also cleaning and ordering ourselves." So I guess I'll keep shining up that piano and washing those grandchildren's hands.


E-mail: sasyoung2@aol.com

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