Grunge Levels

Arti­cle from 2003.

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 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. 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 usu­al­ly 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? At one time, we had “clean enough for guests” as a stan­dard sep­a­rate from every day. 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’m aller­gic to dust, mold, mildew, ani­mal dan­der, just about every kind of pollen, and many oth­er things. The clean­er my house is, 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? 

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. If the PC crash­es, the Win­dows instal­la­tion disk 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 (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. 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 this is all 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 into 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 are 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 is cleaned imme­di­ate­ly or goes 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, since 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 and 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.
  • The sur­faces in com­mon areas, like your liv­ing room, are dust­ed at least week­ly. 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.
  • Any­thing you use is put away after using it. That means 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. 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 5 am and get­ting home at 11 pm 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 was 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 peo­ple whose homes I have described were ill, elder­ly, or car­ing for an invalid. 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 web­site? 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 stan­dards 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. (All of them are get­ting bet­ter. I just have to remind myself to be patient and keep remem­ber­ing that chil­dren are obvi­ous­ly not born know­ing how to 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 can­is­ter 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.

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