Monday, December 31, 2007

Sprucing up for the Holidays

My Scottish ancestors allegedly cleaned house to celebrate the new year. What fun women they were, too. The jolly sloshing of cold, soapy water, the scratching of scrub brushes from attic to coal room, the sweeping of dust into festive clouds, and the merry snapping of bed linens as the fleas were thrown out. There’s little like it to get the blood up.

These were descendants of the Danes, who raped and plundered their southern neighbors for sport. To “scotch” something is to put an end to it. Many Scots immigrated to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. And surely the heritage of their no-nonsense attitude contributes something to our American obsessiveness about searching out and destroying germs, weeds, and most recently, foreigners.

This warlike attitude bears little relation to the gentle cleanliness of my Bavarian ancestors, which is perhaps best illustrated with a little story. I went to dinner at the home of a friend. The friend’s mother was visiting from Germany. I chatted with the mother as she set the table. Putting out the plates she stopped suddenly and examined one of them. “Ach! This is dirty!” she said. Angling the plate slightly, she blew on it and then, satisfied, set it neatly between fork and knife.

These genetic strains are always at war within me. Where other people have “dust bunnies” under beds and in corners, I used to let dog hair—when I had a dog—collect at the edges of a room until it formed “dust bears.”

On the other hand, ask my secretary-companion if I don’t take a perverse and almost scary satisfaction from scrubbing faucet scum with a Comet-laden toothbrush. And who delights in a bubbly bucket of Lysol and a mop when the bathroom floor gets really disgusting? Aye, lassie.

I try not to get too worried by this neat-or messy issue. People will take advantage of you if you show any weakness on this front.

After all, it’s obvious that in any couple there must be a neat one and a messy one, a compulsive cleaner and a slob. Wherever you fall on the Cosmic Continuum of Cleanliness, your partner is bound to fall to the right or left of you somewhere, and there’s your dichotomy. And the longer you’re together, the more apparent these differences will become. Still, the self-aware may notice they often find themselves on the same neat or messy side of a succession of partners. They should learn from this.

I had a brief, bad roommate situation while in graduate school. My roommate and her new lover decided they wanted the apartment to themselves. They started a campaign to persuade me to leave. It involved, among other things, moving a dog in unexpectedly and tying him to the kitchen cabinet where I could get to know him, and pressing me about why I thought I needed to study in graduate school instead of watching Twins games on TV like regular folks.

Finally one night the lover accused me of being anal compulsive. After 37 years of being the messy one, this struck me as a stunning, bald-faced invention. Clearly she’d gone off the deep end. Would the two of them stop at no twisting of reality to be rid of me? I packed as fast as I could.

But merely because neatness and organization are not your top priorities, that doesn’t mean you will be blind to their benefits. I am soul-weary of raging around the house looking for my sunglasses or my day-timer or, worse, the misplaced file folder containing the guts of the story that will, if published, make my career. The proper organizing system could change my life—if I could just find it.

I notice, too, that fresh sheets on the bed often have an aphrodisiac effect on both me—the messy one—and my neater secretary-companion. Now, here’s an area of my life where I think I might not mind being taken advantage of.

This piece was first published in Weird Sisters.

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