Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sharing clutter

When I got back from Paris and Stockholm, and the three dynamic days of focus groups in Chicago, I returned to my home that wasn’t mine alone anymore. It had been occupied. Not by mice, or bugs, or that barking and scurrying Olive upstairs. It was bigger than that.

I had prepared myself. I reminded myself that anytime I had left town before for a long period of time, I arrived home to find my house felt different. It had a weird smell. Things seemed larger or smaller than they had before I had left. Returning home would be no different than those previous homecomings, but there would be different furniture and more clutter.

When I get off a plane and return home, I leave clutter in my wake. It’s the curse of a Libran’s business travel ways. I get home and open my suitcase and usually leave it in a corner unpacked. Or I dump the contents in a pile. Or I take the things I need out piecemeal so my suitcase ends up remaining slightly packed and slightly unpacked with remnants of my trip strewn across the sofa or the bed.

I did that. I got home and dumped my stuff out alongside the stuff Brad had deposited in the house. It was now a house for two. It would take a while to unpack his belongings, so I figured I had a lot of time to deal with my own things. It was nice to hide my sloppiness in the chaos of the household merge.

A few weeks have now passed. As time went by, I put away my traveling things. I also managed to do a better job of clearing out space for Brad’s things. He eventually had space for his shoes and a sill for his collection of dollhouse toilets. His bedside table slid neatly against the wall.

Even with these minor steps toward progress, the house remained cluttered for a while and I felt guilty that Brad didn’t have any space to call his own. But then one day he took charge. He established the back bedroom as his principal domain, laying a carpet from his former house and putting his antique oak desk in the window looking out onto the garden. He slid my crumbling chest and glassy wine chiller under his desk. He moved my filing cabinet to the closet, hanging his clothes on the rod next to it. We yanked the scraggly lily-like plant out of my yellow terra cotta urn under the window, saving a couple of stems for replanting in a smaller pot; we then repotted his three-stalk tropical foliage in the much larger urn, giving its compressed root system a chance to spread out and grow into its new surroundings.

Gradually, the other rooms have filled in with a mix of Brad and Joey. Our belongings will continue to integrate with each load he deposits in the living room. And I’ll learn to accept that a blond wooden bench that served as his coffee table doesn’t have to be tucked in a room of similarly stained bookcases. And he’ll come around to admit that the pairing of similar furnishings gives a room a more complete look. And that modernish is not evil.

Hooray. He already bought a nice Knoll side table yesterday. It’s nice to see he’s adapting so quickly.

The table. It will look good when it's not shoved next to the Judaica cabinet.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Losing focus

Focusing. Over the last couple of days, I’ve facilitated three separate focus groups. I often lead focus groups about a wide range of topics, typically addressing transportation issues, but these three all offered something very special.

The first was with a group of developmentally disabled men and women, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, but the group included a few older participants. All of the participants were enthusiastic and excited to share their opinions, and the cash incentive certainly didn’t dissuade any of them from participating. I showered them with a series of questions and hypothetical scenarios. For example, I asked, “What would you do if you got on the wrong bus and ended up somewhere unfamiliar?” “Stay calm and don’t panic,” was the first reply. Some of the participants had difficulty responding to some of the questions (“To maintain your independence, how can you get information on your own about public transportation options?”), while others were eager to share their preferred destinations: Florida, Kentucky, and Africa.

The second focus group was with a group of unemployed or underemployed low income Spanish-speaking men and women. A market research firm with which I’m working made the arrangements for the facility, but I almost got into a fistfight with the facility director who claimed not to know that incentives were being provided to participants and that we were recording the discussion. We were kicked out because I started the discussion even though I was directed to wait while he contacted his supervisors in the state capital. He got a little nasty, but state employees are useless drones. They must posture – as he was doing – to be noticed and to prove they have some authority. Our focus group pranced out to an alternate facility across the street for two hours of multilingual babble. I hadn’t put my Bogota-based Spanish to such a test for a few years and my brain ached after the session.

Persons with physical disabilities comprised the selected population for the third focus group. Of the 15 or so participants, all but three had wheelchairs, and representation included persons with speech, visual and auditory disabilities. This focus group could have gone on for four hours, but I had to keep it to two. Everyone had something to say and say, everyone was raising a hand and another hand, and everyone wanted to revisit just one more point. They were great, and offered the ever powerful reminder that being disabled really sucks sometimes. I know I’m lucky that I’m not disabled, but I know that bad things happen and even my circumstances could change in the future. The big issue with them is that when you’re disabled, you can’t be spontaneous: you have to plan days ahead for any trips your making, any plans your confirming and any technology malfunctions. And you really have to rely on public transportation, which really sucks. Yes, I’m a transportation planner and I think public transportation sucks.

After the third focus group, I darted out the door bound for O’Hare, but was forced to join the slew of SUVs commuting home to their suburban Chicago garages in stop-and-go 20 MPH traffic. Now, after two glasses of white wine, a UAL chicken parmesan dinner and a presentation of Astronaut Farmer, I’m feeling pretty okay on my flight to San Francisco. The film, about a delusional man who builds a rocket in his farm and actually orbits Earth nine times (only to land a few miles from his home) is arguably the goofiest film I’ve ever seen. But hey – good for him.
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