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Grunge Levels

Warning: This is a rant. It is a real, very heartfelt rant. There is nothing gentle about this rant. If you choose to continue reading, you will be exposed to descriptions of nastiness. You've been warned.

Over the last few years I've become increasingly aware of feeling like a freak. I keep house. Even when I worked outside the home full-time, I kept house. In fact, over the years my tolerance for grunge has decreased more and more, to the point that I'm uncomfortable in many homes other than my own and that of close family members.

To be fair, I am not a naturally neat person—not at all. In fact, I have to fight a constant battle against clutter. When I'm going through a time of depression, one of the last things I'm thinking about is cleaning anything, and if you ever see my house actually dirty, you can pretty much expect that I'm in a severe depression. Even when I'm not depressed, the fact that I love listening to a lot of different music CDs, am normally reading several books at a time, and have several stitching projects going on all the time makes it really easy for clutter to just happen. I've almost given up on keeping my desk clutter-free - it so often has software and other things on it! (But I do try, because cluttered surfaces are harder to keep dust-free.) There are four other people much like me in this house, plus another child who spends most of her waking hours here, so that's a lot of clutter that just happens.

I am, however, accustomed to a clean environment. I was raised in a clean house. When I didn't keep a truly clean house all the time, I felt uncomfortable and worried all the time - what if someone dropped by? We had "clean enough for guests" as a standard separate from every day. And that just isn't any way to live - it is so much simpler to maintain a clean environment all the time. It's more relaxing to live in a nice, neat, clean environment, and having anybody drop by isn't stressful in the least. I feel completely confident about opening my front door to anyone from the kids' friends in the neighborhood to my parents to a random utility service person, because I know that there's nothing to be faulted in my home. It's how I was raised, and it's what I want my children to consider normal.

It's also much healthier to keep a certain minimum level of cleanliness. I happen to be allergic to dust, mold, mildew, animal dander, just about every kind of pollen, and many other things. The cleaner my house, the healthier I am. My partner and daughter both have many allergies, too. Many visitors have such allergies. Why not keep the place welcoming to everyone and healthy for us, all the time?

And there's far less drama in a clean house. Things are where you expect them to be. Clothes are clean when you need to wear them. You don't need to excavate the kitchen to cook a meal. Kids don't miss the school bus because their shoes have been taken by the messy fairy. (Okay, they might, but there's no excuse for it if you're modeling neat behavior for the kids.) If the PC crashes, the Windows installation CD is in the software drawer where it should be, with that nice little emergency boot disk. The fridge doesn't choke up and die from coils so dirty the motor burns out. When your kid gets a fever in the middle of the night, it's easy to find the thermometer and the children's Tylenol or other appropriate remedy (and it isn't even past its expiration date), even if you are half asleep and worried and carrying a crying baby around in your arms, because they're both in the medicine cabinet where they belong rather than lost in the mess in the living room or wherever you last used them (don't laugh, I've seen it happen). I'm allergic to drama, too, so less drama is a major plus for me.

My guidelines for a normal house are:

  • The kitchen gets is cleaned after every meal on a basic level—food put away, dishes rinsed and put in the dishwasher, surfaces wiped down, etc.
  • There is no trash in the house anywhere other than in the trash cans, and those are emptied to an outside trash can daily. Kitchen and bathroom trash cans, especially, need to be scrubbed out on a regular basis.
  • The bathrooms are wiped down daily and scrubbed down weekly. They are checked daily to be sure there's plenty of the basics, like toilet paper, soap, and a fresh hand towel.
  • Anything truly stinky is kept under constant control—if there's a catbox, it's scooped at least once a day (we do ours twice) and completely scrubbed and changed out weekly. Dirty disposable diapers go to an outside trash can as soon as a new diaper has been placed on the baby's bottom. Cloth diapers are rinsed as soon as they come off the baby and placed in a smell-tight container to be laundered daily. In fact, anything that has any connection to mammalian waste products needs to be cleaned immediately or go to an outside trash can.
  • Clothing that isn't currently being worn is in a binary state: clean or dirty. If dirty, it should be in a clothes hamper or in the process of being cleaned. (Okay, maybe that's trinary—clean, dirty, or in the laundry.) If clean, it should be hung or folded in a drawer or otherwise stored however you happen to store your clothing. Yes, there are a few exceptions, like housecoats—you don't wash them every time you wear them, but you should at least hang them up when you aren't wearing them.
  • If you aren't drinking out of it or eating off of it, dishes, glasses and cups are either clean and put away or sitting in the dishwasher waiting to be washed.
  • Carpeted floors need to be vacuumed thoroughly at least once a week—daily for high traffic areas. Hard floors need to be cleaned often enough that they don't feel sticky on bare feet (I'm big on bare feet) and there's no visible dust or dirt.
  • At least dust the surfaces in common areas, like your living room, weekly. At least. If the dust is visible, there's a problem. You breathe it long before you can see it. The less clutter you have, the easier it will be to dust.
  • If you put anything you use away after using it, you will not lose it, it is less likely to get broken/ruined/stained/chewed by the dog, and there will be less clutter.
  • Wash the bedding weekly. It feels better that way—trust me. Really.
  • Having microscopic levels of bacteria and other icky things on surfaces is unavoidable. Having visible mold or mildew is totally avoidable. If you see something growing on anything in the house, you either have a science experiment that should be properly isolated or you have a total housekeeping failure that should be remedied immediately.
  • Spills are cleaned as soon as they happen, whatever that happens to entail. If you wait, the mess will only get harder to clean—perhaps impossible.

Yes, I know that normal life intrudes. People get sick. Sometimes you have a day of leaving home at 5am and getting home at 11pm and you aren't going to spend what little time you are at home cleaning the bathroom. But in general, those guidelines will keep your house nicely liveable and healthy.

If some of that seems like it should just be too obvious for words, then you haven't visited many private homes lately. It seems far too common for people to have mold colonies on shower curtains that are so developed that I fully expect to see them publishing their own constitutions. We visited a home a few years ago (for an event that was planned months in advance) that had a pile of trash in the kitchen large enough to hide my dog and most toddlers (and that was, apparently, after a lot of cleaning had occurred to ready the place for guests, according to remarks from people who visited there often). I've actually gone to help prepare a dish for a potluck dinner at the home of a fellow church member and found it necessary to take the range apart to remove several generations of grease buildup for fear of starting a fire if I used the burners. On another occasion, I knocked on a neighbor's door (this in a very nice middle class suburban neighborhood with big yards and new cars everywhere you look) to discuss an issue that had arisen between our children, and was nearly knocked down by the smell of DOG! that flowed out of the door, making it very uncomfortable to even stand on the porch. I can't even count the number of times I've been nauseated by the smell of a dirty catbox or diapers. When I was dating, my first visit to someone's home was often my last visit, because I just don't tolerate grunge well and see no reason to become more tolerant of it.

Please note that none of the above were in housing projects. None of the people whose homes I have described were ill, elderly, or caring for an invalid. None of them were raised in third-world countries. All of them consider themselves perfectly normal and civilized. They're all reasonably well educated people with excellent jobs who can well afford to either buy the proper equipment and supplies to clean their homes or hire someone to clean for them.

From what I've read in Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House, I don't think what I've seen is really unusual. Yes, everyone is tired. Most adults work outside the home full-time. Most homes do not have an adult at home full-time. We're all busy. There's a lot going on. We have full lives. But truly, a clean house is a more welcoming, more comfortable house, and if you'll take time to get it there and keep it there, you'll rest better and feel more recharged from your time at home.

Is this a really weird thing to discuss on a web site? Maybe. I don't know. But grunge levels are, for me, a significant compatibility issue - for friends, SOs, anyone whose house I'm going to be expected to visit or to allow my child or my partner's children to visit. Sam and I have different grunge levels. They're slowly coming together, but that's because his are improving - I'm afraid I'm not open to compromise on mine. He was raised in a very clean house, but his children have not been, and when we initially met neither he nor his children had some of the skills and habits that I consider basic to living a normal life. (They're getting better - all of them. I just have to remind myself to be patient and keep remembering that children are obviously not born knowing how to be clean, and that it takes a very long time to retrain nine years of messiness.)

I don't like anyone else enough to be that patient, though, so I'm not willing to look past slovenliness in social contacts enough to be in their homes. We game only in our own home, largely because that's where I'm comfortable. I might love you a great deal as a friend, but I'm not going to spend time in your home if I have to sit down on a nasty toilet seat while I'm there or start considering the positive aspects of carrying pomanders at all times. If I feel that I need to send bottled water and a cannister of Clorox wipes with my kids when they visit your home, they won't be attending your children's birthday parties or spending the night there, although you and your children will be welcome here (and, if we're really good friends, I'll probably consider hosting that birthday party for your child).

No, I really don't consider any of this "obsessive" to any degree. In fact, I'm considered the messy person in my family of origin because I'm not just naturally neat and organized. I don't get up and think, "Gosh, I want to vacuum!" I use a card-file system to keep the house clean. If I can do it, though, I think it's possible for anyone else to do it.

Last updated August 9, 2003