Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Time to Clean

I don't want to alarm you but I have a confession to make:

My house is a mess.

Whew, that feels good to get that off of my chest! Initially, I typed: "My house is a mess right now," but I opted to remove the qualifier because, well, in truth, it's usually a mess...and I'd guess that yours probably is too--barring one of the circumstances that I'll outline below.

And I don't even mean it's mess-y--we're talking FEMA-scale disaster in situ. With cases of water, boxes of cereal, and other household goods stacked up in and around the pantry, it looks like both the bomb shelter and the apocalypse it was meant to outlast. The dryer has come alive and it has a stomachache--egesting piles of clothes all over the floor like the morning after the best night out ever.

Now, to be fair, it's not always this bad. We happen to be in the middle of a pretty significant overhaul, with my soon-to-be-teen essentially getting a brand new bedroom. The timing of this almost ritualistic cleansing of childhood artifacts coincides with the town-wide yard sale that's quickly approaching. There are garbage bags filled with toys that will either be sold or donated--piles of clothing that face the same fate--in nearly every room.

To the untrained eye, it might look like we are in the process of moving in or out of our beloved abode but, upon closer inspection, there are signs that this is not necessarily a temporary circumstance. Sure, the bags will be gone in a week or two...but what about the things strewn upon the desk at which I'm typing this admission of guilt? Or the shoes haphazardly stacked by the door like some sadistic game of Jenga?

No, no, my friends--we are just a messy bunch here. I'd like to think, though, that we have good reason to be, and so I'll plead my case.

A little background might be helpful, though, so allow me a moment to set the stage.

I am a child of the '80s and early '90s. Like most children of that era, my parents were born in the '50s and experienced typical middle class, New York upbringings, themselves. I have many fond memories of my childhood and the time I got to spend with my stay-at-home-mom who gave up a corporate career to raise yours truly. Despite not growing up with any siblings, I was not my mother's only charge. You see, aside from dealing with me, she also had to...take care of the house.

My mom was an active woman and I rarely remember seeing her sitting down; to my knowledge, there was not a single moment of her actually "doing nothing." As the sole financial provider, my father worked a lot to keep our family afloat, but that left the lion's share of the chores to fall upon my mother's shoulders. In his defense and to his credit, he took on what he could when he could, but it's fair to say that the vast majority of daily tasks were my mother's to tend to.

And tend to them she did! If she wasn't cooking, she was cleaning. If she wasn't cleaning, she was doing the laundry. If she wasn't doing the laundry, then she was probably shopping or, eventually, working at the local library.

She was a dynamo: an unstoppable force engaged in constant battle with an unrelenting enemy. She dusted daily, washed the floors, cleaned what wood surfaces were available. She did all of this without complaint, day in and day out, for the entirety of my childhood.

I remember asking her once why she did it--why she put so much effort into ensuring that every speck of dust was eradicated when it was mostly just me and her inhabiting the second floor of a two family house. After citing the obvious (no one wants to live in a messy space, hygiene, cleanliness, etc.), she dropped the bomb that reverberates still to this day:

"What if someone drops by? Wouldn't want the place to be a mess."

I was perplexed, even at that tender age. NO ONE stopped by--at least not with any regularity. We rarely entertained anyone (aside from school friends that I would hang out with from time to time), and I can count the number of unexpected visits between 1988 and 2006 on both hands.

It struck me as both odd and mildly terrifying--this notion that, at any given moment, someone might swoop into our home unexpected, judging us based upon our level of disorder.

My lovely wife experienced a remarkably similar upbringing in that regard and so it should come as no surprise that we both have had that notion drilled into us. The rub, though, is that, despite having that aforementioned fear, we've both grown immune to its threat...

...except for when we actually might have company.

Funny enough, that's what prompted this whole piece. One of my best friends hit me up last night about getting together on Saturday. As far as I can tell, we'll meet up elsewhere and hit up some breweries, but when I mentioned it to my wife, her eyes went saucer-wide.

"We have to clean," she said in a hushed whisper.

No joke--it escaped her body like an exhalation of dread, both of the task itself and the horrible calamity it means to stave off.

"Fuck that," I replied. "I've known James for thirty years--he's not going to give a shit about a bunch of crap covering the floors. He's seen worse."

I know my wife. She acceded with a polite, "Yeah, you're right," but there's no way in hell that this house will not be miraculously tidied by the time I wake up on Saturday morning.

Seriously--I don't know how she does it. I say, "Hey--so and so is coming by," and, before I know it, things that have sat on top of other things for weeks magically disappear. Half the time I don't even know where they go! It's like she conjures some purgatorial pocket universe and just shoves it all in there until the threat has passed.

Maybe she turns into a tiny Tasmanian Devil--whirling around, tucking things into cabinets and drawers willy-nilly, all for the sake of appearances...

And I'll bet if you're a child of the same era, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Hell, you've probably even said it yourself!

"We've got to keep up appearances."

The appearance of what, exactly? And for whom? And why is it plural?

What are we so deathly afraid of that we will go so far above and beyond our ordinary cleaning rituals for the sake of company? Is there secretly some competition where everyone we know are judges? Sure--we assume they're coming over for the pool and some burgers...but maybe it's really their semi-annual evaluation!

Don't get me wrong--I know that we all care about what other people think about us, even to the smallest of degrees. It's what motivates (most of) us not to dress slovenly--to put on clean, unwrinkled clothes when we are going to a place where we will interact with...other people. There are also unspoken consequences and determinations that are tacked onto those judgments.

It's not just people's opinions of us that are diminished when we come up short to those societal norms--it's their extended assessments of our worthiness and our abilities to function as fully competent adults.

When it comes to the house thing, though, I can't help but laugh because it's like a game that we're all playing and absolutely no one seems to have picked up on. If company is coming over, it's not like we just straighten things up (at least if my wife is a representative example)--we have to make it look as neat as humanly possible--to strive for this unattainable display of perfection as opposed to the everyday entropy that more accurately describes our lives and lifestyles.

And, really, who gives a flying fuck if there's a magazine or book on the floor in front of the couch? You know why it's there? Because I read! And guess where I enjoy reading?

Or how about a half empty water bottle on the end table alongside two video game controllers, some guitar picks, a few pens, and quasi-stack of napkins? It feels like I'm describing a crime scene that's under investigation!

Why do we feel so compelled to turn our abodes into tableaux--as if we're trying to create a zoo exhibit: Human In Its Natural Habitat--for other people who likely live the same goddamn lives! We all have a ton of crap that we've accumulated--things we like to collect, play with, look at, etc. And we don't always immediately return these things to their rightful places! Sometimes they stay out because we might use them again in the near future or because we're forgetful creatures with diminishing attention spans.

Now would be a good time to point out that this messiness that I speak of pertains almost exclusively to stuff. There's no squalor nor filth--no dirty dishes piled up in the sink (or, hell, any other room for that matter). Our garbage is all in small trashcans awaiting transport to yet larger receptacles before finally making their fated leaps into the big bin outside for collection.

Our problem is, as I said, stuff. George Carlin once waxed poetic about it, and I'll be damned if every word he said wasn't true. Fight Club, too, touched upon it with aplomb.

Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, stuff is only part of the issue--one third of the triumvirate that defines our den of chaos. The other two are space and time--neither of which we can really control, at least not to the same extent as the former.

As a kid, I had plenty of toys and devices of recreation. Still, as we were renting the space we inhabited, space was at a premium: there was a finite limit to what I could realistically attain and engage with (saying nothing of the financial constraints). In a cruel twist of fate, I was born with a collector's mentality--a love for accruing and completing sets of things--and a terrible difficulty of letting things go.

I'm sure you can see where this is going.

For years, I just kept adding to my collections. When I outgrew toys (Transformers, G.I. Joes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and X-Men, thank you very much), I continued with video games while adding in CDs and DVDs. I was always big on souvenirs from trips, and so the tchotchkes abounded.

Then, in 2007, Heather and I got married and moved into our own place: an awesome duplex on Staten Island with more space than I had ever had at my disposal. It almost felt like too much when we were walking around the empty rooms after signing the lease agreement.


Even by 2009, I had overloaded our once capacious space with too much stuff. Don't get me wrong--I wasn't a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination--but I clearly had a hard time saying no when I wanted something to add to my...collection.

Then came 2010.

Oh boy. Once we had Tim, it was a game changer. We survived two more years before it was clear that we needed a house of our own. And so we got one, right along with that liberating feeling of "man, we will never fill all of this space!"

Two more kids later, and here we are, climbing over bags of Hot Wheels and baby books on the upstairs landing like some perverse game of Twister, trying not to break my neck as I make my way to the bathroom. I readily take the blame for it, too--all of this stuff. I tried not to spoil the kids with material things but I definitely took it too far, particularly at Christmas.

A few years ago, when the Marie Kondo thing was big, I briefly considered facing the truth of the matter--not just that we had way too much stuff (that much was obvious) but more so that we had way more than we needed.

That latter point is really what I need to contend with--to overcome the immense stress of letting go. It's an anxiety thing for sure--that fear of the potential regret or ruing of no longer having something. It's easier just to keep whatever it is, and so that's what I've done.

I'm getting older now, though, and I'm begrudgingly facing the truth that I can't take it all with me to whatever ensues this mortal realm. Time is the one thing we can never get more of and it's that fact, more than anything, that explains the mess. Out of all of the "stuff" that I have, it's the time that means the most to me.

I have way, way, way more interests and creative pursuits than my parents did. I might even argue that, generationally-speaking, the same could be said for Millennials vs. Boomers. Sure, technological advances can account for some of it, but I'm sure it's more the access to spare time, too. Most people of my parents' generation worked an incredible amount. It's just how it was back then, and, perhaps as an unintended consequence of their hard work, they enabled their children--my peers--the opportunity to have more financial and temporal freedom.

Societal expectations and perceptions, too, have largely changed. The stereotype of a housewife toiling away, day after day, is nowhere near as prevalent now as it was forty years ago. The adults of that era, though, were told what to think and how to behave by their own parents (and society) decades earlier.

My own acute, innate awareness of the passage of time coupled with my ridiculously unrelenting type-A drive, leads me to be incredibly critical of how I'm spending my available hours. Sure--I could dust throughout the house only to have it look like I didn't do a damn thing by the time I finish--or...I could work on a novel, edit some photos, work at learning more songs on the piano, tend to another household project, or do any of the nearly countless other things that I would rather be doing.

And that's just if I'm alone! When the kids are around, cleaning is among the last things I want to be doing (unless we're doing it together).

Truth-be-told, what an external observer might view as a mess is something that I don't even notice as I make my way through my day. In my mind, it's just evidence of a life lived actively. Our kids' sports keep us all incredibly busy and often out of the house for long stretches, so, when we are home with few if any obligations demanding our time (a rarity), we would rather spend it as a family, enjoying the hours of togetherness afforded us.

Maybe that's really the catalyst here--the internal instigator that stirred up all of this umbrage. Of all the cleaning tasks available, dusting is the most Sisyphean of them all, and it's the one I engage in the absolute least because of what a time waster it is--time that could be better spent elsewhere...time that I'll never get back. 

In a few months, Tim will turn thirteen and then I'll hit the big four-oh two months after that. I might still have more heartbeats ahead of me than behind, but I might not. I have no control over which way it goes--only an awareness that the amount of time that I do have--however much of it is left--is my most precious commodity.

Sooner than later, the trappings of childhood will be replaced with expressions of adolescence, times three. Beloved board games will be returned to their resting places, never to be played with again as a family of five. Trinkets and baubles that have been out on display for time immemorial will be sold or stored--memories manifest in plastic polymers: resolute witnesses of lives lived one second at a time.

Someday, this house is going to get quieter. The love and laughter that once served as its soundtrack--peals of glee and shouts of anger and sorrow--will fade, replaced with the rumble of moving truck motors and cardboard flaps folding. Doors will close on the childhoods they hide within as new ones open for the adults departing the suddenly-too-small home, their metamorphoses complete.

The dust will settle in the quiet emptiness of their absence, taking up residence in the space they, themselves, once occupied. Maybe I'll take a peek inside--sending the particles swirling in the sunlight billowing in between the curtains. I'll smile at their dance--each mote a memory made together as a family...evidence of time well-spent.