I I I I I I I  

Home Comforts

As Desperate Housewives go, I'm afraid I'm an abject failure.  No matter how desperate things get, the catty stars of the TV show maintain a glossy façade of success, but I seem incapable of keeping up appearances.  When I put on makeup, my kids ask where I'm going, and when I clean the house, they ask who's coming over.

Our house is perpetually cluttered, dusty and sticky.  There's a work-around for everything: the faucet in the backyard requires vice grips to turn it off and on, the downstairs toilet is jury-rigged with a piece of florist's wire, and the fence is propped up with Franny's toy kitchen.  There are enough projects to keep us busy every weekend for the next year, and we'd probably still have a lengthy to-do list.  But most weekends, we don't get around to housework.  We go to the comic shop, swim and have picnics, or sit around and watch movies.  We're profoundly unhandy, and it shows.

Periodically, I get frustrated with all the chaos in our lives.  It feels like I'm spinning plates, and so long as I keep it all in motion, I'm ok.  But if our routine is interrupted in any way, everything comes crashing down.  Maintenance is my downfall; faced with slippage, I either start grasping at tiny details in a futile effort to keep it together, or throw my hands in the air and give up.

I've been fascinated by friends' reports of  The Fly Lady website, and recently decided to check it out.  It's entrancing in its simplicity.  Weekly cleaning zones! Email reminders for your chores!   Upbeat cheerleading language!  This system promises to free you from one of the most tedious aspects of home care - the mental work of thinking about what needs to be done, and deciding what to focus on.  The real drudgery of housework for me is the logistics, so I can see how this could feel liberating.  Much of the advice (set up routines, do tasks in small increments, gather everything you need for the next day before bed) is eminently useful.  And yet, with all the emailed reminders and the constant practice, it seems to tie you even more to your house, to make housework and maintenance the focus of your day.  Also, the approach is resolutely retro, assuming that the readers are not only women, but stay at home mothers.

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Cheryl Mendelson's home maintenance guide, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, is a similarly-time-consuming-but-even-more-exacting method.  Mendelson is obsessed with germs, and repeatedly cautions the reader to avoid washing hands in the kitchen sink (I have a feeling she'd heartily approve of the Fly Lady's admonitions to scour your sink daily), as well as advising household managers in the art of hospital corners and properly ironed napkins.  (It might give Mendelson a heart attack to see our napkins, crammed into a basket, and, as often as not, topped by a snoozing cat.  I do try to avoid putting the cat hair covered ones on the table.)  She's careful to use politically correct language, and she doesn't assume that her readers are all stay at home moms, but it's hard to imagine how someone could work full time outside the home, follow her regimen for home maintenance, and still have time for more frivolous pursuits like sleep.

I don't want to be a slave to my house, but I want to enjoy it.  I can't really argue with the Fly Lady's point that a clean, organized house is a blessing to yourself and your family, but I want to be able to enjoy my clean house, not spend all my time keeping it that way.  Maybe I need a housekeeper.

But when I think back to the week we spent in Wales last spring, one of the best parts about it was playing house in the wonderful cottage we'd rented.  It was great fun to cook on the fabulous Aga stove and to look out at sheep- filled meadow while doing the washing up.  Even picking up our clutter and pulling the duvets up on the beds every morning were part of the adventure, rather than boring chores.  This might have been because it was all different and new, but I suspect a great deal of it was that the cottage was neat and clean to begin with.  There was none of the endless catching up that makes housework such a burden at home - it was relatively simple to return everything to order, unlike our house, where there's very little order to return to.

The problem is that there's never a time when a new mess isn't being made, in which to organize, declutter and establish all those helpful routines the experts suggest.  While I'm cleaning the bathroom and bleaching the grout, Alec's scattering cat food all over the kitchen floor, and while I'm vacuuming up the cat food, Franny's washing the mud from soccer practice off in the tub I just scrubbed.  Given the ability to stop time (which the protagonist of Nicholson Baker's novel, The Fermata, uses to undress and ogle women), I could stop the rest of the world while I achieved absolute order and cleanliness.  But barring that, it's unlikely to happen until my children leave home (if then).

On the other hand, I wonder if we'd really be happy in an immaculate house.  When we bought our mini-van, I was obsessed with keeping it clean and dent free.  I knew it would inevitably lose its brand new shine, and I felt a combined sense of dread and anticipation wondering when the first ding would appear.  When I was transporting my friend's new cabinet and it slammed into the rear door and cracked it, I was relieved.  The damage had been done, and now we could start living in the van.

Certainly our backyard is "lived in" -- we have no manicured lawns, no carefully laid out borders.  There are bald spots in the grass beneath the playscape and the sandbox.  There are messy, cinderblock flowerbeds filled with overgrown herbs, vines grown from a sprouting potato rescued from the pantry floor, and gone to seed dandelions.  There are sinkholes where the kids have buried pirate treasure, a tangle of grapevines that will soon bud into a shady hideaway, and an untrimmed boxwood that shelters dragons and zombies beneath its branches.  Our yard is a playground, not a showplace, and I'd rather have it that way.  Instead of yelling at the kids to stay off my prize petunias, we can romp and play and have a good time.  So maybe it's a good thing that the couch is stained and the bookshelves are a hopeless jumble.  As Leonard Cohen said, "There is a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in."
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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