In Todd Haynes' 1995 film Safe, a housewife played by Julianne Moore finds herself suddenly all too susceptible to the byproducts and complications of modern life; power lines buzz ominously outside, the air teems with unknown chemical threat and Moore is beset by nosebleeds, seizures and fears of societal breakdown. Unable to explain her ailments, Moore recedes farther and farther from her family and friends until, finally, she retreats entirely to a protected New Age compound where life cannot harm her.

In a much more affable way, the bulk of presenters at this past Saturday's Pacific NW Organizing Expo, held in the Montgomery Park building, likewise suggested that life had become in one way or another altogether unmanageable—and that help was not only available but necessary in a humming world of accumulated clutter and competing responsibilities. The expo was a function of the National Association of Professional Organizers, who have devoted themselves to the still-novel vocation of dividing life into more manageable, personable pieces.

Of course, on the face of it, the Montgomery Park building is an unlikely place to look for such help. Architecturally it is modernism's most impersonal face, wholly reminiscent of Soviet public housing except for the mammoth, steel-trussed Hollywood-style "MONTGOMERY PARK" sign that implausibly sits atop it.

Nonetheless, I was there to sample the goods, with coffee and scone in hand. Immediately upon entering the mess of attendees and booths, however, I already felt like an interloper. This was not because I was made in any way unwelcome by the well-coiffed, friendly people handing out the brochures and maps, but because the mass of booths offered services foreign to my sensibilities. I have always been casually disorganized—a filer into amorphous stacks of papers linked only by chronology, a loser of car keys, launched into propulsive action only by a sense of rapidly impending doom—but it turns out that the language of organization is scarier to me than the alternative.

"Whoever invented the to-do list must be a millionaire," said seminar presenter Megan Spears of Hood River's Disorder 2 Order, who is also the expo's organizer, "because everybody needs one." She held up spiral-bound books with to-do lists and calendars separated into categories domestic and professional. She offered up an extended metaphor in which large life goals were rocks filled into a container, and trivial activities grains of sand, and lamented that too much of our space was taken up with the sand. She was a compact, efficient-seeming woman with boundless energy, someone I trusted to fill up her time with rocks—or to run a Red Cross relief effort, for that matter.

There seemed to be two main schools at large, in the expo, about how best to manage one's affairs. According to one, the clutter of objects paradoxically requires more and more objects in order to keep the other objects in line. A raffle offered baskets filled with desk organizers both rubber and leather, file folders, in-baskets, gear ties, cable ties, mobile-phone holders, "weekly grid-pads," labeling systems and magnetic calendar pads. Catty-corner from the raffle table, Portland-based NW Organizing Solutions offered to simplify life by helping you get rid of your things altogether—seemingly problem and solution in the same line of sight.

Meanwhile, a tremendously likable Portlander named Tracy Hafer was busy explaining, onstage, how to organize one's kitchen into the celiac-disease version of kosher and treif—to keep glutens clear of non-glutinous things, keep the grains unmixed, keep the different workstations of one's kitchen separate. A woman from Vemma offered a line of energy drinks so segmented they amounted to a full-on lifestyle decision. Another woman in the Feng Shui Design booth explained that harsh angles and unbroken lines would clutter my headspace and make life unlivable, and that a small, shiny disc stuck to my cell phone would keep my brain safe from dangerous electromagnetism. (Almost everyone in the room was female, for reasons I refuse to speculate on.) The lady at Vancouver's Life Success Counseling offered to help productively re-jigger my subconscious, as did the friendly people at Portland's own Time for Success, in consultation of texts by self-help titans Napoleon Hill and Robert Maurer, respectively.

Again and again my thoughts turned to Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, to the underlying notion that life is a frightening surface phenomenon that must at all costs be managed into submission—that is, that it's not precisely the messiness, constant unpredictability and downright unreasonableness of life that makes it interesting in the first place. However obviously competent the various life coaches and organizers were—however much I realize that people like me will always rely on people like them to make the world function smoothly when it needs to—this is the one point on which we will always disagree.  

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