Coming home to a paper stuck in your front door can be chilling. I always think it’s an eviction notice, even though there is no rational reason for me to think this. This time, it was a notice that we are having our bi-annual apartment inspection. It was dated the previous day - clearly false - but it probably was left within the 24 hours mandated by law. The trouble was, we didn’t see it until the end of the workday. Someone would be coming between the hours of 9 and 4:30.
It’s 6 PM and an inspector is entering your home tomorrow at 9 AM, whether you’re home or not. Are you ready?
What do you suppose I did when I came home at 6 and saw this notice?
Some of my people have been evicted due to squalor and hoarding. A couple of them have had it happen more than once. It’s extremely shaming and traumatic. Games have rules, though. If you enter into a contract with someone, you either uphold your end of the contract, or you break it, and if you break your contract, you pay the penalty. It is a simple and harsh truth. If you want to be free to live how you want and interact with your stuff however you want, you have to own your own place. Even then, there are community standards.
This is me we’re talking about, though. I saw the notice, and this is what I did.
Start the Roomba in our bedroom, because that was the chore of the day
Start a load of laundry
Finish making dinner
Put Roomba back on the charger
Sit around relaxing with my husband for three hours
Put the fresh sheets on the bed that I had washed that morning
Go to bed at 10
Wake up at 7:30
Clean bathroom, because that was the chore of the day
Take out the garbage and recycling
Wash my breakfast dishes and wipe out the microwave and sink
Then it was 9:00 AM. What did I do next?
Start another load of laundry
Dust the entertainment center while making a business call
Note that it was 9:30 AM
Sit around for the rest of the day waiting for the inspector to show up.
What would have happened if I hadn’t done any of those chores?
Well, we would have eaten dinner and breakfast regardless. We would have made the bed together, because sleeping on a bare mattress is not our idea of fun. If I hadn't done any of the chores, there would have been a full laundry basket, the garbage and recycling containers would have been full, there would have been dust on the toilet tank and hairs in the tub, the entertainment center would have been a little dusty, and the inside of the microwave would have had some food splatters. All of this would have been acceptable. Cumulatively it would have been acceptable!
The worst-case scenario would have been a dirty, sticky oatmeal bowl sitting in the sink. But why would I ever leave a crusty oatmeal bowl as a booby trap for Future Me to clean up? Past Me has washed several thousand oatmeal bowls over the years. It’s about 10% of the effort to just do it right away.
The point of this anecdote is that doing a few chores every weekday pays off. Our place never really gets dirty. The laundry and dishes and garbage never really build up. There are never really stacks or snowdrifts of papers piled up. I spend about 40 minutes every weekday doing chores, so I always have weekends free, and when we leave for a trip, it’s not a big deal. I don’t like coming home to a messy house; it’s a lame ending for a vacation!
Also, legally, our property management company can send an inspector or repair person inside our apartment with 24-hour written notice. Even if we’re not here to see the notice. This is what I would want if, say, our upstairs neighbor left the tub running and the water burst through our ceiling.
We have a week-long trip planned next month. Our pets will be boarded, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our dog being surprised by a man in uniform, which would presumably entail a lot of barking. We wouldn’t know to get ready for an official representative of the landlord, though. However we had left the place would be the way it looked upon inspection. That means JUDGMENT AND CRITICISM with potential legal and financial ramifications.
I clean my house because I know how, because I don’t think it’s a big deal, because it doesn’t take very long, because my husband and I both like it better, because I was taught to believe that it is a form of hospitality and welcome to guests, because happy people don’t live in a big depressing mess, because my reputation is involved, because it’s faster than leaving things to wait, because it makes my life easier, because I choose not to live the alternatives, and, lastly, because not cleaning my house could cause me significant hassle and inconvenience. These hassles include eviction and losing my cleaning deposit, among who knows what else.
Someone known to me wound up on the local news due to squalor. It happens. If I wind up on the news (again), I would hope it would be for something positive I did. Never go viral for the wrong reasons.
I freaked out a little when I saw the inspection notice, even though I know that I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I had no idea what to expect or what the inspector would be inspecting. Inside the cupboards and cabinets? Inside the appliances? Under the sinks? Would they be looking for specific things like water damage or insects, and would I have any idea what kind of inspection that would involve? What was bothering me was WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, which is always a trigger for thinking I CAN’T HANDLE IT.
The truth is that we can all handle just about anything except for uncertainty. The Place of Uncertainty is not supposed to create a mini-vortex inside my own apartment!
What really happened was that the inspector knocked at 3:10. The dog barked and I put him in his crate, and then I opened the door. The inspector asked to come in. He went straight to the smoke detectors, checked them, and left.
I’m not even sure he was here for a full 60 seconds.
It’s possible that if our place had been fully hoarded, the inspector might have said something. I talk to a lot of repair people, delivery people, construction workers, landscapers, movers, and first responders, and they all say they’ve seen it all. They definitely do notice. In the case of apartment dwellers, it’s a question of whether they are asked or required to report anything like that to the property management company. Probably not. There is an extremely broad range of mess that is just considered standard in our culture, and that’s fine.
As for me, I’m relieved that my biggest annoyances with the inspection process were the false date, having to wait around, and having my dog bark. I can go back to chilling out in my nice clean (and tiny) apartment for the next six months.
I was talking to myself on the bus, and this lady got up and changed seats. Oh, neat! I've reached the stage in life when I am virtually indistinguishable from either a crazy person or a person in an advanced state of inebriation. Another interpretation would be that I was quietly rehearsing a speech. I'm drunk on public speaking! I'm crazy about... oh, never mind. The point is that talking to yourself can be useful, and even more useful if you do it in the privacy of your own home. If you're not already into talking to yourself, it can help to learn the difference between different types of self-talk.
The most common type of self-talk is hateful, sarcastic, critical self-talk. "Nice job, idiot!" If you talk to yourself like that, I have a suggestion for you. Get some broccoli. Take the big, thick rubber band off of the broccoli stalk. Eat the broccoli, obviously, but then save the rubber band. Put it on your wrist. Every time you hear yourself saying something to yourself that you would never say to anyone else, pull the band as far as it will stretch and then let it go. SNAP! If you're going to hurt yourself, might as well make it physical. When you see how much your skin gets marked up, you'll have a graphic representation of what you've been doing to your own heart and spirit.
More helpful is motivational self-talk. "You can do it! Great job!" Research indicates that motivational self-talk is the most helpful for endurance athletes, like marathon runners and cyclists. I can speak from experience and say that this feels true. I give myself motivational speeches when I run all the time. "You got this, you're crushing it, up up up up that hill!" Of course, I also mix the motivational self-talk quite freely with self-insults and boot camp-style smack talk. "Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?" This serves three purposes: distraction, humor, and reminding myself that I COMMIT, NEVER QUIT. I guess it also serves the purpose of inuring myself to rude language, so that when I chance to overhear it, it doesn't bother me as much. I might hear an insult from someone and think to myself, "Oh, good one. I can use that later." The important point is for me to keep going, keep going, develop more grit, and keep going. The less I like doing it, the more important it is for me to do it, whatever it is, because it builds the "don't feel like it" muscle.
What we're going to focus on now is instructional self-talk. This is when you explain what you're doing to yourself in technical detail. Many of us may have turned to this type of self-talk while learning to drive, reminding ourselves to check the mirrors, release the parking brake, etc. Research shows that this type of self-talk is helpful for sports with intricate physical skills, such as tennis or golf. "Roll your shoulder forward." As I learned this, I realized that I talk myself through things all the time, especially when it's something I don't like doing or when I'm trying to focus my mental bandwidth. "I'm checking that the dog door is closed and the heater is off and I'm putting the tickets in this pocket and my keys are going on the clip" and on and on. A recording of me might sound like pure lunacy, but it would also be a good transcript of exactly what I was doing on the small stage of my tiny apartment.
Working with chronic disorganization, hoarding, or squalor requires learning a lot of new skills. Fortunately or unfortunately, these are very repetitive skills, and thus they're ripe for instructional self-talk. I am holding my breath and I am picking up this dripping bag of trash and I am walking it out to the curbside bin and I am throwing it away and I am patting myself on the back and GASP breathing fresh air! I am folding this shirt and I am folding this other shirt and I am folding this shirt and I did not actually die and my arm didn't fall off. Good job, me. You're welcome, Future Me, you ingrate. It's boring and I hate it but I'm doing it and I'm getting it done and look at that! It was the longest 12 minutes ever but now I'm done and I can go watch otter videos.
Sorting and letting go of excess clutter requires its own motivational and instructional self-talk. I am looking at this and remembering that I really, really liked it when I brought it home, but I never use it, and even though it's cute, it doesn't look cute ON ME, and I'm ready to pass it on to someone else. I want to be able to use this room and fit everything in this closet and only one dresser, and that means half of this stuff has to go no matter how much I like it. I'm trying this on and acknowledging that it isn't doing me any favors. I am reminding myself that I care more about my friends and my pets and reading and listening to music and eating nice meals than I do about some old shirt. I am not my stuff, and my stuff is not my personality. I'm talking myself through this awkward, time-consuming process of releasing myself from my emotional attachment to mere material possessions. There will always be plenty more in my life and Future Me will be just fine if I let this go today. I am not losing anything and I am not missing out - I am using my imagination and working to make a more inspiring space. I am focusing on all the things in my life that are more important than a bunch of old stuff.
Not everyone is going to get much use out of verbal, out-loud self-talk. Some of us are more suited to journaling, which is really self-talk on the printed page. The process of writing in longhand seems to do something positive in the mind. We talk our way or write our way to a new way of thinking, convincing ourselves as we go. Some of us, the rare few, will simply be able to sit back with an epiphany, a new realization that everything is different from here on out. Now that I've seen a different way of seeing, I can never fall back to sleep and start seeing things the old way any more. I've taught myself how to change, and I've changed.
Okay, come on, admit it: we live in the future. We have a space station, robots, self-driving cars, and special glasses for color-blindness. That's why I want to know why everything so far available for an automated home is irrelevant to my interests, and why I can't buy any of the stuff I really want in a smart home.
I didn't have a dishwasher as a kid. My husband had to teach me how to use one: how to load it properly, how to choose cycles, and what was this mysterious substance known as "rinse aid." When I was a child, we visited my grandparents, and I asked my mom where to put the quarters in their washer and dryer. I've come a long way since those days. We have not just a dishwasher and a microwave and a washer and dryer, but also a robotic vacuum and a robotic mop and a battery-powered hand-held scrubber. I've already decided that anything fully automated that hits the market is coming home with me straightaway. Maybe I'll order it by drone and it can let itself in while I'm out.
What's on the market in smart homes right now? It looks like you can automate your door locks, security system, thermostat, fans, window treatments, lights, coffee maker, and entertainment system. You can set up a video doorbell and a nanny cam. You can buy a pet feeder with a timer. You can buy a virtual assistant in a "talking can" like the Amazon Echo.
I just watched the commercial for the Apple HomeKit (disclosure: I not only own some Apple stock but also a metric load of Apple products. Oh, and some iRobot). The actor in the commercial is clearly a smart, successful single woman. All the features of the HomeKit revolve around her preparing for her workday and relaxing afterward. Awesome!
Where is the stuff for a family, though?
My husband and I were cracking up laughing the other day about this tweet saying that 90% of marriage is checking whether the dishwasher is clean. SO TRUE. Dishwashers come in all ages and levels of technological sophistication. Wouldn't it be great if there were a sensor that could be installed on an existing, analog dishwasher and keep our phones informed of its status?
Likewise, what I need the most is a sensor telling me whether one of us (*cough*) has left a load of wet laundry in the washing machine. There are all-in-one machines that wash and dry in the same barrel, without the need to switch machines, but apparently they take at least three hours and the dryer load can't be as big as the washer load, because that makes perfect sense. Can we fix this? Maybe we should focus on building a Martian colony first. Wait, what am I saying? What does humanity really need the most?
Take your flying car and... I dunno, go fly it somewhere. I'm not leaving until I get a robot that folds laundry.
Another really awesome thing would be if new products came with some sort of RFID tag or other type of sensor, so their location could be tracked anywhere in the home. The signal would only need to transmit for a few yards if there was a receiver in every room. You could find out whether your missing shirt was hanging in the closet, buried in the bottom of the hamper, or quietly stewing in a musty washing machine. You would always know where your reading glasses or scissors were, or if the remote got wedged in between the sofa cushions, or if the dog buried your cell phone battery in the yard. The tricky part would be retrofitting and trying to stick these tags on the 10,000 things you already own. Lost LEGO? You're on your own, kid.
There totally needs to be an automated LEGO vacuum. It could have sort of horizontal windshield wipers that sweep small toys into its maw and spit them into a container in the back. Be scared if they come out built into something, like, say, a ray gun.
A refrigerator that reads your body fat percentage when you grasp the handle, and opens or locks down particular drawers based on your personal settings. It should also know the insert date of every item you put in it, so it can tell you not to eat the leftovers that are about to pop spores, or to remove the old lettuce before it turns into that special brown pudding.
Can there be a sensor that tracks every time a dog barks and reports it directly to Animal Control if it reaches a certain frequency? Asking for a friend.
Out of all the things we need in a smart home, what we need the most is the ability to check hot things and turn them off remotely. I'm talking about stove burners and irons. Every type of iron: steam iron, curling iron, flat iron, pumping iron, Iron Fist, whatever you may have left lying around. Anything from the Mad Science laborrrratory, anything like that.
I need to get pinged on my phone if the power goes off in my fridge or freezer. It would be great if I could also get a notification about burst pipes or dripping faucets. Once a large terra cotta tile fell off our roof while we were away, and if it had been a solar cell, that would be good to track remotely. Once we came back from vacation and our neighbor had backed a van over our mailbox, but maybe asking for a mailbox inbox is one reach too far.
Could there be any kind of vermin detector? It would be interesting if the house knew it had termites...
We live a pretty easy, futuristic life. My husband and I refer to housekeeping as "starting the robots." We find it amusing to take the dog for a walk while running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and having one of the robots clean our floors. Perfection would be if we could also have a robot wiping down countertops, crawling around vertically and scrubbing the shower surround, or washing windows. Being able to control the stove and the dog door remotely would be amazing. Knowing with one glance at an app whether there was anything in the dishwasher or washer, you know what? Knowing that could save some marriages. I'm sure it could.
The toy vacuum could save a life. At least the lives of a few little action figures.
I firmly believe that all innovation starts as the wacky idea of a science fiction writer or futurist. I also believe that good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas, except that all the bad ideas are always packed on top. I'm an idea-generating machine, and I share my futuristic fantasies in the hope that someone will read one and invent it for me. I'll be your best beta tester ever, I swear! It also is not wrong to spend a little time appreciating the futuristic modern conveniences that we already have. An electric box that washes dishes? Get out of here, you whack-a-toon! Twenty years from now, we'll look back and ask ourselves how we ever managed without these laundry-folding robots.
I only found it because I dropped something behind a shelf. Moving a storage tin to reach it, I discovered a very large black spider in its web. Compounding this moment of surprise was the fact that I was talking to my mom on the phone. The conversation went something like this: "Blah blah blah BLEARGHughohmygahhhh sorry what?" Then I had to wind it up because I really wanted to take a picture of the nefarious interloper, but I needed my phone camera. Sorry, Mom, that's really interesting but there's this spider to investigate...
Years ago, I decided to start carrying spiders and insects outside rather than crush them. The main reason is that they leave horrifying greasy smears on the wall. The whole time I'm wiping them away with my Magic Eraser, I'm thinking "spider guts bug guts spider guts..." There's also that gruesome crunch of the exoskeleton being cracked, or eight spider eyeballs popping off, or whatever. The occasional extra leg joint left behind on the floor. If I wanted to do crime scene cleanup, I would - I hear there's good money in that. I'm not squeamish, I'm... KIND! Yeah, that's right. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
My husband happened to be home, so I let him carry out the big scary black spider. He caught it in a plastic container, because it has a lid, and examined it out on the balcony.
"Um, babe? It has a big red hourglass on its belly."
We agreed to crush it, rather than release it to get back into our apartment, or one of our neighbors' apartments.
We had only lived in our new apartment for three weeks. We had carefully unpacked and set up each and every item from every box. If there had been a giant hairy black spider in any of the boxes, presumably we would have found it. It had to have come in either through the front door or the sliding patio door, since we don't actually have any windows. Either that, or it got in somewhere when it was tiny and then began growing when it was comfortably hidden away. None of these options are very reassuring.
Our dog has a habit of picking up spiders with his mouth, tossing them around several times, smacking them with his paw, and then wiping his cheek on the remains. Not great if this ever happens with a venomous spider like a black widow. I did some research, and venomous spider bites can cause paralysis and death in dogs and cats.
Here's the thing: spiders get in. They like nice, warm, dry hiding places. There is probably at least one spider in everyone's home at all times. Almost all spiders are totally harmless, and even beneficial. There are a few, though, that do bite humans, causing wounds that you probably don't want to see in Image Search. I have a relative who needed emergency treatment after a bite from a black widow spider. We need to discriminate about whether we tolerate spiders in our homes, and which type they are.
My clients tend to be very laissez-faire about, well, a lot of stuff, but particularly about spiders and vermin. Almost all of them will point out spiders in the cobwebs on their ceiling and say, "That's my pet." Believe it or not, it's also quite common for my people to tolerate mice and rats in their homes, even though I can give you at least fifty reasons why this is a horrible idea. They tend to be skeptical about mainstream health and safety information in general. Fire safety, germ theory, vermin... *shrug* Whatevs.
On the other extreme are the sensitive souls who are so alarmed by the prospect of finding a spider that they use it as an excuse to avoid moving anything. There might be a spider in that closet! There are definitely spiders in the shed/garage/attic/basement... There might be a spider behind that box! Or IN that box! Cue full-body shudder.
This, to me, is the best possible reason to clean up. There might BE a spider in there. Better find it before it carries your cat into its web! If there's a spider anywhere in my home, I'm going on a search and destroy mission and I'm not stopping until I find it. Spike is right there with me, sometimes dispatching the poor creature before I can get it into the Eviction Container. I'm not waiting around until it crawls into my bed, which has happened more times than I care to share.
One morning I woke up and saw a pretty darn big spider crawling on my sheets. Not fully awake, I reached my arm out and crushed it with my finger. I felt it squirm. THEN I woke up all the way.
I first went camping at age two. Part of the wilderness lore I was taught included always checking your shoes before you put them on. When I'm camping, I stuff my socks into my shoes or boots after I take them off, to discourage any spiders, scorpions, or anything else from crawling inside. At home, I keep all my footwear in a hanging shoe rack, where I hope it would be a great deal of trouble for some crawly thing to discover them and try to make a home inside one. I still check, every shoe, every time. Once I left my shoes on the floor and found a cat toy inside, presumably from my roommate's cat. Gee, uh, thanks?
I also make sure to put my laundry in the hamper, again because I don't want to create an enticing new home for anything that has more legs than I do.
I would no sooner dream of putting on clothes I had left on the floor overnight than I would eating leftovers out of someone's fridge blindfolded. The idea of pulling on a pair of pants with a spider hidden inside one leg is scarier to me than... now that I think about it, it's literally scarier to me than walking down a dark alley alone.
The main difference between my home and the homes of my clients is that I have a lot of visible bare wall. I don't have stacks or piles or box towers for stuff to hide behind. I don't have a lot of bulky furniture. Even though our apartment is under 700 square feet, we have plenty of breathing room around our stuff. I was able to find the big black widow spider behind our shelves because those shelves are for active use storage. Nothing sits in one place for very long before it is taken out, used, and put back.
My contention is that we should be intentional about our homes. Everything we own, everything that comes through our doors, and the way everything is arranged should be exactly as we choose it to be. Sometimes we are temporarily beset by unintentional additions, such as junk mail, fruit flies, or the occasional still-mobile creature carried in by one of our pets. Part of our plan for intentional living should be to figure out what to do with unwelcome interlopers, removing annoyances as they come up. Hopefully we won't have to smear them on the wall.
'Husband' is a verb, meaning "to use resources economically." Strangely, the verb form of 'wive' means either "to marry" or "to supply with a wife." There has always been a double standard going on here, and there probably always will be, so we might as well run with it. I think of "wife" as a pretty specific job description. A wife is a useful person to have around the house. I think of this role in a positive way, and that's why I like the idea of being my own wife.
First of all, I made my first romantic commitment to myself. That is to remain true to myself until the end of time. No matter who else comes along, I'm going to be waking up to myself each morning. I could never give my heart to anyone who didn't match up with my values, anyone I didn't fully respect and admire. Why would I ever let myself down by settling for someone I had to make excuses for? It's my job to build my world, and I have to vouch for anyone I let in.
Second, I live with myself no matter whether I live alone or with several other people. No matter where I live, I am going to have to cook meals, wash dishes, scrub toilets, mop floors, wash windows, clean the lint trap, scour drains, clean the oven, knock down cobwebs, and ever so much more. Therefore, I accept that this is simply part of the fate of being human. If I were a badger, I'd be happy to dig a hole in the ground and live there and eat voles. If I were a puffin, I could live at sea. Alas, I have this human failing of wanting to live in a house with a roof and a floor, and I am sensitive to odors that might delight other creatures. Someone had better darn well be a wife around this joint, and I'm still waiting for the talking animals to show up, so it might as well be me. I lived alone for several years, and I really don't care that it takes 40 minutes a day to clean house.
I'm my own husband, too, if that means something as specific as 'wife' does. I have cleaned up dead vermin. I carry my own spiders outside. I can fix the toilet and unclog hairy drains. I have confronted scary unidentified sounds late at night. I've taken a few self-defense classes, and it's a good thing, because I have been attacked on the street more than once and had to get myself out of it. I have negotiated discounts on major purchases. I research my own investments for my retirement account. I have put on my own snow chains while nearly being blown off the road. When you live alone, you have to do all of the strenuous, dangerous, scary, and icky things yourself. It tends to lead to immense gratitude when someone else shows up and is willing to share some of that load.
My dad taught me how to pitch a tent, use a hatchet, identify and use every tool in the toolbox, troubleshoot technical problems, and avoid getting poison oak, all of which skills are useful to me today. My mom taught me how to clean house, make hospital bed corners, sew a button, iron shirt collars, write a resume, and bake a cake, all of which skills are useful to me today. I'm pretty sure both of my parents have all of the abilities listed, which were transferable across genders even then. I came from a practical, hands-on family and I grew up to have a lot of practical skills. I see no reason why I shouldn't be just as proud of my ability to can my own jam and pickles as I am proud of my ability to use shop tools and assemble furniture.
I draw the line at crocheting doilies, although I could do that, too.
There is a lot of resentment out there about traditional gender roles. I have a degree in history and I could teach a course on all the reasons why this makes sense. In my own personal life, I like to imagine what I think I would do if I were male, and then see if I want to do that thing, whatever it is. Often, the answer is that I would speak up more, take fewer things personally, or take up slightly more physical space. I don't think I would do less housework, probably because my husband, my dad, and my brothers all cook and clean house. Who wouldn't? When it comes down to it, almost all of our scutwork is done by labor-saving appliances. All we really have to do is to put away the clean dishes and laundry, and start the robots.
I like the romantic, starry-eyed vision of a "wife." I see this as a person whose job it is to create a sense of warm hospitality, to make an empty building into a home. When people do it in the workforce, they are known as restaurateurs, hoteliers, interior designers, caterers, event planners, and more. We see that this work can either be treated as drudgery or as a high art. It's my choice to see my kitchen as a playground that I share with my husband, and sometimes with family and friends who like to cook together. It's my choice to see my home as a place of refuge and pleasure, rather than a battleground of power struggles, resentment, and bickering. It's my choice to treat my home as a gift that I can offer to my friends. I felt this way when I was single, and it helped me to attract a mate who also appreciates a comfortable home. I am my own wife, and I'm his wife, too.
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
I wish I wrote this book.
Rachel Hoffman is for real. She's going to say what she means, plainly, as we can tell straight from the title. Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess. It's the uncensored speech that lets us know this is not a pretentious book about impressing people or following rules. You want to clean up your house for yourself, because it feels like time and because you deserve more from your life. This is a very approachable, comforting, and motivating book with enough actual instructional details for the novice.
I work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization. It turns out that most people are never formally taught how to clean house or cook, just like most of us aren't taught much about personal finance, automotive maintenance, or animal husbandry. Arcane rituals! While we probably wouldn't judge ourselves for not knowing how to rebuild a transmission or adjust our own brakes, we do judge ourselves for our domestic skills (or lack thereof). It's when we moralize on ourselves that we bring in guilt and shame, which not only doesn't solve our problems, but makes them worse. This is why we need Rachel Hoffman.
I have taught many of the techniques and attitudes in Unf*ck Your Habitat and I know they work. Take 'before' photos. Work with a timer and take frequent breaks. Figure out a place for everything. My people have gotten rid of countless truckloads of excess stuff with these methods, and learned to keep clean homes for the first time. There is real pride and satisfaction to be found in doing this for yourself, your own way, on your own time.
One of the best parts of Unf*ck Your Habitat concerns negotiating with housemates. Whether you're the clean one or the messy one, whether cleaning up was your idea or not, these ideas obviously come from hard-won experience. There is also a section on Emergency Unf*cking that will stand the test of time.
Unf*ck Your Habitat should be taught in school. Maybe not elementary school, but certainly by freshman year of college. What a great, smart, and truly enjoyable read, a book whose time has come.
When it starts cascading onto the floor, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes it's a slow trickle; other times it pours. Gradually it forms pools and puddles. Then it's wall to wall. Then the level rises, sometimes to the ceiling. It's not water; it's clutter. Clutter gets backed up and starts filling the house when it flows in faster than it flows out. Draining the house is what we do when we finally realize we're in too deep.
In the normal state of affairs, stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Buy a bunch of bananas, eat them, and compost the peels. Buy a bag of new socks, wear them until they're threadbare, and throw them out. One in, one out. If stuff goes out at the same rate that it comes in, then there's never any buildup. The only need to drain the house is the periodic carrying out of garbage and recycling and donations to charity.
The outflow is faster than the inflow under certain conditions. Moving away. Hopefully the truck is getting loaded faster than anyone is carrying in new shopping bags! Having a yard sale, many of the contents of which may originally have come from someone else's yard sale. Declaring laundry bankruptcy and spending an afternoon at the laundromat. Major space clearing, when we realize that the house needs to be fully drained.
Usually, stuff flows into a house at a faster rate than it flows out. This is the nature of the vast material wealth of our society. Paper that would have been precious to the ancients is foisted upon us in endless drifts of junk mail and coupon circulars. Entire stores specialize in selling goods for one dollar. Others sell recycled/donated items they collected for free. Others are known for handing out free samples. Things are so upside down in our time that poor people can wind up having more stuff in their houses than wealthy people do.
What I tend to find in my work is:
Laundry carpet - so many clothes that they are strewn across the floor, and the flooring itself is invisible. Carpet? Tile? Hardwood? Who knows?
"Why is there a pot on the floor?" - so many dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counter that there isn't enough room, so some have to go elsewhere. On the floor? On the dining table? In the oven?
Mail blizzard - so many papers that they cover every flat surface, sometimes to be moved into bags and boxes so the surfaces can be covered again, like bailing out a boat
Cupboard explosion - so many plastic food storage containers/coffee mugs that the cupboards are too full even when the majority of items are waiting to be washed. So many food packages that cases of food are stacked on the floor for lack of storage space.
Bags in a box in a stack on a pile - so many items of every description that they can't even be stacked anymore. This is when the level starts to climb past three feet or higher.
No free space, either vertical or horizontal - everything flat has a pile on it, unless it's vertical, in which case it's covered by a bookcase or a stack of bins or a bunch of refrigerator magnets. Not so much as a single square foot of blank space to rest the eyes.
The worse it gets, the worse it gets. The deeper the accumulation of dirty dishes, the more dishes are "needed" so that there will still be a clean one, somewhere. The wider the stream of dirty clothes on the path toward the washing machine, the more clothes are "needed" so there will be something somewhat clean to wear, somewhere. The more papers there are, the more magazines with articles on Getting Organized are "needed" to add to the stack. The less comfortable it is to live amongst the rising floodwaters of clutter, the stronger the need to be out somewhere, away from it all, which usually means a manufactured need for a shopping trip. Every trip outward, escaping the mess, tends to result in at least one shopping bag that comes in. Nothing is going out. The floodwaters continue to rise.
A house won't drain itself. Usually it is only initiated by unfortunate external events, like an eviction or a natural disaster. Once I saw a photo some acquaintances had posted of their kitchen after a major earthquake. Quite honestly, it took me a minute to realize that anything had happened, because it looked like any other messy kitchen with greasy cobwebs. "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Mean, but sometimes true. When the piles of clutter get too high and too deep, it becomes impossible to tell if real disaster is going on underneath, whether that's a hidden water leak, toxic black mold, or an infestation of vermin. Then the clutter becomes the least of the problems.
Draining the house voluntarily is a very brave decision. It's hard work. The accumulation of years won't disappear overnight. Usually it starts to look worse for a while even after a lot of strenuous work has been done, exactly like rebuilding after a flood. The detritus has to be cleared away. Usually it reveals stained carpet and damaged flooring, marks on the walls, and damage to various fixtures. Years of deferred maintenance start to reveal themselves. That's why we remind ourselves that we don't have to do it alone. Rebuilding is done in groups. Drain the floodwaters, and ask for help so you don't get in over your head.
Hoarding is a lot more common than people realize. That's because people hide anything having to do with shame. I've worked with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization for twenty years, and at this point I think it affects roughly 20% of the population. Here in the US it does, anyway. Some cultures seem to be somewhat immune to it. It's just so easy for us to bring home excess stuff that it's almost harder to avoid it. I just see it as a sign of the times, that we have food excess and debt excess and entertainment excess and texting-while-driving excess and, also, clutter excess. I don't blame anyone. It just interests me. It's a problem I know how to help solve. So when I find out someone hoards or has an organization problem, I'm never surprised.
Don't feel judged. My friends do, even after I've talked to them about it. Honestly, nobody you will ever meet will be more sympathetic and less judgmental about a little mess than I am. I have seen it all and smelled it all. Granted, if you're suffering, I don't want to see you live that way, but it's not like I'm going to climb in your window and start alphabetizing your socks. I'm here to help, not to boss someone around. I don't even boss myself around.
I'm not the kind of organizer who teaches you to use a perfect little label maker and make perfect little bulletin boards and perfect little... I dunno, terrariums or something. I'm not a Pinterest princess. I can't even really wrap a gift or frost a cake. Everything I try to make turns out lumpy. What I try to do is to find the pain point and remove it. That's all.
What's a pain point? A pain point is the thing that bothers you the most. Shame, anxiety, depression, sure. I probably can't do much about those, but I can help you do something about the situation surrounding those states. Practical philosophy. Also, if you're ashamed of, say, a hoarded room, it's hard to feel that way once the room is just a regular room again. If you're ashamed of an unpaid debt, pay the debt and the shame can go away, like fog burning off in strong sunlight.
Everyone has something, a secret shame. Often it manifests as a stack or a sack, like a bag of receipts and unbalanced bank statements, or an incomplete baby album, or a package of blank thank you notes. Alas, the people who most should be suffering from shame apparently don't feel it at all. Those are the people who wantonly go through life being nasty and hurting people just for the entertainment value. Casters of insults and spreaders of false gossip. They're out there. Think of whatever shame you feel and just mentally wad it up and toss it through the ether toward one of those people. You have more than you need, so just share a little, huh?
I'm never surprised by a hoarded house, just as I'm never surprised by grief or shame or anxiety or depression or any of that. That's because those feelings are nearly universal. All of us are the walking wounded, doing our best to get through the day and feeling alone. Oh, gee, obviously I must be the only one who can't cope. We see so many photographs these days of other people turning cartwheels on the beach or having a big ol' free hugs party, and we wonder what's wrong that we aren't feeling this constantly perfect joy and elation. Well, guess what? Those photos are staged. Personally, I've never turned a cartwheel in my life. If I do have a free hugs party, by all means, drop on by. If you know a hundred people, and each one shares the one perfect photo of the best moment of the best day they've had all month, it does prove that there's fun to be had, but it does not prove that everyone else is having it in a constantly running scintillating stream. Just like a clean house does not prove that other people don't have to wash pots or fold laundry.
I know who you are. If you refuse to let people in your house, you're one of mine. If you refuse to ever open your drapes, you're one of mine. If you offer someone a ride and then frantically try to scramble around clearing off the passenger seat, you're one of mine. The problem here is not what you think it is. The problem is that feeling of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, and trying to hide the evidence. Your making it a big deal is what makes it a big deal. Remove the shame, and the situation becomes easy to resolve. You could simply ask for a little help, and one of your friends most likely would step in and help. Some of your friends may just be waiting to be asked. The guilty feeling of being helplessly trapped in procrastination is the thing that separates us. I recognize this feeling the instant I see it, and the only thing that surprises me about it is the strength of its force.
Mess is surely no worse than other common things people do, like drunk driving or bouncing checks. The natural reaction when we don't feel like we measure up is to isolate ourselves to keep the secret. The more we feel like we're in trouble, the less likely we are to speak up and say we can't handle it alone. Sadly, the wider the gulf between our perceived results and those of the people around us, the more likely it is that they know a simple solution to our problems. If it looks easy for them, maybe we just need to ask how they do it. Nobody would want someone to suffer alone, wallowing in bad feelings. Tell the truth about your life and you may find that nobody is surprised.
Whenever I use the term 'man,' I use it in the original sense of 'person.' I am a 'man' as opposed to a pine cone or a lizard. In this sense, I am a Tool Man just as much as many of the males in my life. Mysteriously, tool use seems to be less about what distinguishes hominids from other mammals than about traditional gender roles. Let's talk about this.
Being a Tool Man is extremely useful. It comes in two parts, fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence includes the ability to solve problems and learn from experience. Crystallized intelligence includes training and the lore of how things are done. The difference between the two can be illustrated by the frustration of novice cooks when they hear that someone "doesn't use a recipe."
Someone who has been taught to be a Tool Man knows the names of all the common tools and what they do. He (I'm just going to say 'he' as a shortcut) can pick up a screwdriver and turn it in the correct direction without thinking about it. He knows that certain types of hardware exist, he knows where to buy them, and he has brand preferences. He can do basic repair tasks quickly, because he's probably done them before, or at least stood by and watched. He can tell at a glance when other people don't know what they are doing. He has knowledge and experience. Not everyone who has been taught how to use tools is all that good at troubleshooting or solving problems in novel ways, though. That is a separate cognitive skill entirely.
Interestingly, everyone who is skilled with tool use thinks of it as 'common sense' when it's really more of a guild specialty. It's also a reliable indicator of demographics and social class.
I have a blue collar background, which is why I know how to use tools. For me, tool use is closely bound to the concept of masculinity, even though I don't think of myself as masculine. In my world, people know how to do things. It feels weird to me when someone doesn't have practical skills, such as cooking a meal or pitching a tent. One of the light switches in our house was wired upside down, and this offends my sensibilities in a moral way. When I meet a man who has no ability to use tools and no interest in learning how, it's hard for me to respect him as a completely mature adult. If I can do it, why can't you?
I probably read too much Robert Heinlein when I was a kid. He wrote about the concept of being a representative of the entire human race to space aliens, and it really caught my attention. People should be good at as many things as possible. I learned how to use a sewing machine, change a fuel filter, build furniture, knit socks, tie up a bear bag, care for a baby, do first aid, use a water filter, make pickles, fix a running toilet, and all sorts of other things. The more practical skills I learned, the more obvious it seemed that acquiring practical skills is useful, convenient, and interesting for its own sake. It also felt empowering. Tool use is girl power!
My husband and I are both Tool Men. We respect each other for this. We can both cook and sew and clean house and change diapers, and we can both light the camp stove and chop firewood and assemble furniture and carry heavy loads. We have a joke where I say, "You're the man, fix this!" It acknowledges the burden that is placed on men by traditional gender roles when anything difficult, scary, or strenuous comes up, like removing a wasp nest. We try to meet each other in the middle and not act out negative stereotypes.
That being said, traditional gender roles got that way because they are efficient. Sometimes, when you are both equally good at something, it's more challenging to figure out whose job it is. Sometimes it can lead to a tendency to keeping score. (Actually, more score-keeping would probably be a good idea in some relationships, because it helps us to respect how much our partners are contributing).
If you're not a Tool Man, but you want one, because you think it's the "man's job," then you have to accept the package deal. If you want a man to be a traditional man, then you have to step up and act like a traditional woman. Quid pro quo, baby.
If you expect him to be the one to do all the heavy lifting and strenuous physical labor, then you should be offsetting that in some way. Respect it as a gift. Shoulder massage? Cookies? Find out what he likes, because he's not a caricature. If you take this labor for granted, you'll start seeing less of it. Reward what you want to encourage.
If you expect him to be the one to take on the strain of mental bandwidth whenever there is a complicated technical problem to solve, it had better be worth his while in some way. What are you offering in exchange? If he's the one who has to diagnose engine problems at the side of the road, or troubleshoot leaky plumbing, where is the tradeoff on your end? Also, you are shortchanging yourself if you stand idly by during these episodes. Who will do this stuff for you if he quits one day?
If you rely on him to pay more than half on dates, do all the retirement planning, or earn the majority of your household income, then you'd better have something to bring to the table to make up those discrepancies. Personal charm? Beauty? Good luck with that. The traditional model means that he carries more of the financial load and the female carries more of the domestic load. Financial dependence is vulnerability in a bad way.
My mother taught me traditional housewifery. I have the full complement of June Cleaver-style abilities. I know how to darn socks, sew buttons, iron shirt collars, turn hospital bed corners, clean an oven, and all that kind of thing. I call it "geisha stuff." I can't bear a dirty, messy house. I know how to clean quickly and efficiently, so to me there's no reason to let things get out of hand. I would clean all of the same rooms whether I lived alone or with half a dozen housemates, and it only takes about 10% more work to do it for two than for one. I don't feel oppressed by this labor because I don't see it as "women's work" and I also don't feel degraded by it. I feel that it demonstrates my mastery of my own home. It's a way of marking my territory. Professional chefs clean their own counters.
Also, my husband does his share. We negotiated.
The more you do, the easier it is to ask someone else to do something. A clean house is its own supporting argument. The tidier it is, the easier it is to keep it that way. It explains itself, making it obvious where most things are stored and what 'clean' looks like. It also makes necessary home repairs stand out as urgent problems rather than chronic annoyances.
Nagging doesn't work. In my opinion, one of the reasons that it doesn't work is that it leaves out all the thousand things that the other party is doing right. It fails to acknowledge other types of contribution. It's accusatory and critical, rather than appreciative and welcoming. We often fall into sloppy habits of treating our partners like bad roommates or annoying coworkers, rather than lovers and mates. Another reason that nagging doesn't work is that we put the burden of something we want on someone else. "Fix that toilet!" rather than "Hey, I'm trying to figure out how to fix the toilet," or, "Hmm, why don't I think this is my job?"
A hazard of being in a relationship is that it can lead to arrested development. We get together and we quit learning new skills. We get together and we fall into bad communication habits that a new love (or total stranger) would never accept. We get together and forget what it's like to live alone and depend on ourselves alone. We give up our independence and get little in return except entropy.
I use tools for the same reason that I clean my house: it's what humans do. I master my surroundings. I am the boss of my life. I want to live the way I want to live, and I rely on myself to make that happen. It's great when I have someone else to pitch in, but ultimately, I'm my own responsibility. Knowing that I don't need anyone else makes more room for me to want someone else, to want him for who he is and not just for the practical roles he can fulfill in my life. A Tool Man, not a man I use as a tool.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.