Monday, July 9, 2012

Out damned spot

We have a house guest at the moment. It was such a relief for her to get here because it meant I could stop neurotically cleaning.

I kept thinking of every inevitability of what the visit might entail. I imagined her throwing something away in the kitchen and noticing the dirt under the sink, which necessitated me getting on all fours to clean the space under the kitchen sink. I thought of her walking into the basement to do laundry and wound up vacuuming the entire space. Suddenly I was acutely aware of the fact that we have NO matching drinking glasses, no matching mugs, and all the cutlery is different. I have cloth napkins, but no two the same. When I mentioned it to my sister she called me bourgeois. The old me, of two weeks ago, would agree.  She was a little taken aback, and actually said "that's not like you!" I think she means it's not like me to care what someone else thinks. This is usually true. Since when have I ever pretended to be Holly Homemaker? Worrying about the grime on the bottom of the blender can really suck the joy out of cooking!

I must say emphatically I was not raised this way. My mom was a second wave feminist who got the message loud and clear that unpaid domestic labour was no way to spend your time. It was kind of a joke in our family. As soon as we were old enough we did our own laundry, cleaned our own rooms, did dishes, washed floors--everything. Part of the point of having kids, right? And my mom had 4 of us. That's a lot of mess, a lot of thankless work. I still remember she had a screed against homemaking taped to a cabinet, something like “I will not spend hours doing what a toddler with a plate of crackers can undo in 3 seconds”.  The house was never spic and span, and nobody cared.

Another horrible side of cleaning for guests is anxiety about which home decor choices might be cause for visitor alarm--the innumerable artistic odes to black metal? The black dahlia 'living dead doll' in her place of honour in the kitchen? The handmade Manson family that I created for my partner's birthday years ago? The poster of a knife slashing through a bible with the quote 'This is the enemy'? The watercolour of me and my partner drawn as Chucky and Tiffany from the Child's Play films with the quote "Friends to the End" written in 'blood'? It's a cornucopia for the eyes. The problem is trying to figure out what would offend a visitor. Maybe nothing, maybe all of it. My sister once told me she had her own concerns trying to edit her apartment for a visiting date--"I tried getting rid of the books I thought made me look weird, then I gave up. I realized I didn't know what was weird anymore, and was probably getting rid of the wrong things".

Cleaning for family is a similar anxiety. The avalanche of mailing envelopes that occupy the back room, the hundreds of beer bottles we're saving for homebrew, everything starts to look insane. And what impression am I trying to give? Sanity, above all; possibly hygiene, good taste will be impossible under the circumstances.

I was reminded of a passage in the book 'The Philosophy of Andy Warhol' where he records a conversation with Brigid Berlin that's basically a long monologue about her cleaning routine, on speed. It’s a 25 page ramble about the minutiae of cleaning.  I read the book first as a teenager and the passage always stuck with me for some reason. I could totally relate. I find cleaning a little overwhelming because even when you try to just do a little, it because impossibly complex. You clean a smudge on the wall and then you have a clean patch that necessitates doing the entire wall. Or you go to dust the bookshelves and then get waylaid for 4 hours alphabetizing everything, or organizing by subject, then realize the records and DVDs need the same treatment. Where does it all end?  It’s totally relatable—you start with the counter and realize the cupboards now look gross. You open the cupboards and enter another circle of hell as the inside of those is now a problem. On it goes, until you’re vacuuming pencil shavings out of the junk drawer. Except I'm not on speed! Which explains why it takes me so damn long and why I find it so tedious and soul depleting.

But when a guest is coming, particularly a female relative of your partner, it all becomes more fraught. It’s not just about hygiene, it’s about an image of hygiene. I don’t think anyone would assume I’m the cleanest person alive, with my friends and family the cat is out of the bag. Not so for my partner’s mom or aunt—they have no idea that brown scum is the norm in our shower—and they must never find out the truth. Why? I don’t know why. I’m sure a good therapist could help tease it out for me. I don’t have time now though, I need to go vacuum the crawlspace in the basement.

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