Cleaning my conscience

I recently learned that an ex-colleague was returning to the city. What stands out about that knowledge is that the second or third communication she posted on some form of social media dealt with finding a good housekeeper in her new neighborhood. It struck me as…well…unusual.

This is not a judgment call. She may be moving to a really big house. Or have a 60-hour workweek. Maybe she entertains a lot and has fussy friends. She may have a physical condition that prevents her from vacuuming. I know after steering around my high-tech lightweight (for whom? Sumo wrestlers?) Dyson, I often feel like I’ve just single handedly pushed a loaded semi uphill. Perhaps she cohabits with a germaphobe. Or maybe she thinks she simply has better things to do with her time—and she’s most likely quite right about that.

I know how valuable localized information is. After moving five years ago, I’m yet to find a convenient dry cleaner. But on a must-do-to-move list that includes necessary tasks like booking the cable guy for a Saturday, making sure we have a working phone and getting approval from the gas company to turn on the water heater, dealing with “the help” would be quite far down on my list. As much as I might wallow in my own martyrdom for doing so, this girl cleans up her own messes.

That being said, and as cliché as it sounds, I do hate housework. About as much as I hate a dirty house. This loathing of dust cloths and dishtowels blossomed young—I’d venture that I made my way through 90% of my high school required reading in the bathroom, hiding from the dishes after dinner. My parents finally waved the white flag and bought a dishwasher. My 10 x 8 dorm room was the first habitat I ever cleaned without threat of allowance withholding (a fairly ineffective one—I worked so many hours at a local newspaper from the age of 14 on that I cleared more some weeks than the town’s average factory working breadwinner. Besides, they still paid for my gas, fearing I’d be too forgetful or cheap to do so and wind up serial killer prey on dark some country road).

I once did have a housekeeper. A few in fact. The longest-employed one being my next-door neighbor. This was, ironically—or at least I thought so—during a time when I was freelancing from my home. Since I could make her weekly pay in 45 minutes of writing, my love and I came to the agreement that my time cost too much for me to spend it doing housework. So once a week, while she dusted and vacuumed my upstairs office, I would return calls in the living room, then slink up the stairs, slightly guilty, and shut my door while she did the rest of the house. It felt weird and she used vinegar on the floors, which made the house smell like a salad. And while my per diem was a little too pricy to be wasting time cleaning my own floors and smacking cobwebs off the ceiling, when she moved away, it never dawned on me to hire someone else.

I was recently discussing Method cleaning products with a designer friend who happens to be my ex-boss. Designers love to talk about Method. When they’re not talking about Umbra or Pentagram. I said something about Method bathroom spray being the only one I could use on our standup shower, since I have to get inside it to clean it. The other sprays choke me. Method’s minty fresh scent makes you feel wrapped in Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum.

He seemed shocked. “I can’t,” he stuttered, “Imagine YOU doing housework.”

This is actually a good thing considering that I clean house in elastic-gone-bad sweatpants (in winter) or oversized cargo shorts (in summer—the pockets are great for Swiffters and ferrying earrings back to my dresser) and usually sans the one undergarment that gets in the way of my reach. I really don’t want anyone to imagine me this way.

This is a man who has known me for going on 15 years. He’s been to my house many occasions, someone who has eaten my dinners and that raspberry pie he loves without getting a disease off unhygienic plates, someone who has sat on my furniture and not become stuck, someone who has walked on my floors without later requiring a shoe shine. So whom does he think makes all that happen?

I suppose that for two women living together—both apparently sharing the housework gene—my love and I do have strangely differentiated tasks around the house. Whoever gets home first starts dinner. Generally that’s her, so I usually only cook on the weekends. Unless we’re having something only she can make—like something barbequed. I don’t go near open flames. I also don’t touch heavy equipment like snow blowers or lawnmowers, due to my lack of coordination. I’m of the belief that if I were to open the fuse box in the garage there would be a faint bang, then all the lights would go off and the entire house would burst into flames. This is why she takes care of the outside and the car, and I do the majority of the inside “housework”.

I’ve taken what some of my friends have called a very “male-centric” approach to cleaning. I have gadgets—plenty of them. I have steamers that sanitize the floors in no time flat. I have a self-cleaning oven and a self-defrosting fridge. I have every spray as you go mop ever made and caseloads of the bathroom foam that goes on blue and turns white when the fixture is clean. If only it would rinse itself and put itself back in the cupboard. But alas.

Still, I believe there are things you learn about yourself when you clean your own house. You see where you need to adjust your general level of sloppiness and stop leaving rings on the counter. You find stuff. You toss stuff as you go. You remember why they put handles on fridges and dishwashers. You make up your mind to deal with the toast crumbs, not just remove them from view. I know there’s an important metaphor in that.

Maybe it’s the indoctrination in my formative years in a Marxist-based feminism that stressed that we’re all responsible for the menial tasks that constitute our own human maintenance. Maybe it’s my fear that household help would speak ill of my decorating choices or my problem with leftovers (I keep them—for a while—I just can’t eat them). Maybe I don’t want to wear drugstore mascara or eat store brand ketchup because I feel I need to economize to pay a cleaner. Or it could be that I truly feel that housework is my cross to bear. That it is, for me, the rain that must into every life, fall. Or that in my heart of hearts, I don’t feel I deserve a nice comfy home unless I’m willing to take care of it.

I’d ponder that more, but the dryer’s beeping. And I can see something sticky on the kitchen floor….


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