Sunday, March 25, 2012

Coping with Infinity, Ignoring the Housework

After two months reading every miserable word of the school’s pristine copy of Moby Dick, I decided that wornness should be my selection criteria for reading material.  I turned, then the most ragged book on my parents' shelf, The Road Less Traveled.  At the time, I had no faculty for understanding or implementing any of it.  In my defense, I was eleven.*

Somehow, the lesson I took from the Peck’s book was that each minute decision—each literal step that you took— had to be infused with purpose and intention and all sorts of seize-the-day nonsense.  The consequence of failure do so would be a lifetime of misery and wasted potential. 

The mental effort to walk the quarter-mile home from school became exhausting.  

Purpose AND misery: Moby Dick has it all!  Image by Tom Neely, 
One day, I found myself unable to muster sufficient joie de vivre to justify another step in the 110 degree heat while laden with a book-stuffed backpack.  But I also wasn’t ready to concede that I failed life by fifth grade.  So I took off my backpack and sat down on the curb.  I thought that if I sat long enough on the baking sidewalk, I would get hot enough and miserable enough that the physical act of walking would become appealing.  Only then would I proceed.    

A few minutes later, I regretted not having my realization in the shade.  And about twenty minutes after that, I gave up and trudged home. 

Five minutes later, at home, I resigned myself to an unhappy life.  It would be worth it, so long as there were popsicles and air conditioning.    

No misery can withstand the awesomeness of Dreyer's Coconut Fruit Bars.
I always expect routine to save me from mental drudgery.  It never does.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful to become an automaton for unpleasant tasks, leaving your brain free to roam places amusing or exciting or creative?  It seems such a thing could be possible, if you worked hard enough at the outset to establish the habit. 

That’s why I drafted a policies and procedures manual for keeping my house clean.  And why the house is always a mess.  

But I’m still not ready to admit the necessity of mental drudgery, not when there are such interesting-looking books about habit formation I've yet to read and implement.  

I wish I were kidding.  But probably not as much as my family wishes. 
But so far, I can't get housework routinized to the degree I'd like.  Each item out of its place represents a flaw in the organizational masterplan, and the housework-avoidant brain tries to rewrite the code to accommodate all exceptions.  An aquarium needs only infrequent maintenance with the right balance of fish and plants.  I dream that one day my own habitat will achieve homeostasis.  
And by "plants" I mean copious amounts of green and brown algae.
 In the meantime, housework (when I do it) requires lots of mental bandwidth, choking capacity that could otherwise be used for processing things that happened or things I’ve read.  Creative projects, or family, or work.  For contemplating the vast beauty of creation or shipping Dair on Gossip Girl.  By which I mean to say, it’s mood-dependent.  

In the meantime, I’m in the mood to think about housework when there’s a narrative to it—a hint of the epic, a foe to be overcome.  I fall in and out of love with housework about twice a year. 

The problem, of course, is that housework is always just a little bit hot for me.  

I can't tell which is more strange: that this is sometimes true, or sometimes isn't.
There is a brain disorder called apraxia, in which a person is unable to complete tasks on command, despite understanding the command, wanting to perform, and having the physical ability and prerequisite knowledge to do it.  It can be caused by stroke, tumor, or traumatic brain injury.   Or you can be born with it, to varying degrees. 

When children learn to speak, a word when first spoken will fix in their brain.  A baby will mispronounce something once and again, often bestowing a baby-made nickname on people and objects.  “Apple” is always “apo” until they’re old enough to consciously create a new habit, at which point the correct pronunciation replaces the misspoken name.  Apraxic children grope with their mouths for words, for sounds, for the various components of word formation which, when you think about it, is incredibly complex—holding ones lips, tongue, and throat in the right position, blowing air at the right time, knowing which tiny muscles to relax and which to tense.  

Childhood apraxia of speech is a motor planning disorder, as the child is thought to lack the ability to control and direct the various outputs for speech.  I wonder, though, if it’s a not a disorder in the traffic signal but rather the consciousness of signalling at all.  It is the difference between voluntary and involuntary, a flipped switch in some brains that says “this is something I must think about to execute.”  For apraxic brains, planning the making of words is something that must be learned and controlled. 

It is so strange to consider that perfectionism and hyperconsciousness are innate to certain brains.  I would never have believed such a thing possible had I not made the acquaintance of an apraxic child, and watched her spend three full years in near-wordlessness.  It is exceedingly bizarre to spy on a baby, but still more bizarre to find the baby secretly practicing words—alone, in a whisper, for weeks—before unveiling them for the public. The public, in this case, including anyone outside the baby’s own head. 

What else are you plotting?
One of the books I’ve read that has been most influential to me is Getting Things Done, because of the idea, new to me when I read it, that the brain remembers undone activities as open loops, and only by closing those loops (by transferring them to external capture), can we be calm, with minds like water.  It doesn't seem to work with the housework.  

Martha Stewart teaches us there is no limit on how well one may keep house.**  Housework expands infinitely to consume the time available.  Knowing when is the right time to stop requires you to know why you’re doing it, and “why?” is the question that always captures the brain.  Chores are the tasks necessary to stay alive and well, but they are ancillary to the purpose of our lives.  By definition, then, the only way to close the loop is to die.  The universe is infinite, but my time here is not.  

The housework life cycle starts with a burst, an all-consuming cleaning project so extreme as to require every ounce of energy and concentration until the job is complete—windows sparkling, furniture polished, floors pristine.  But within days of the crisis passing, new ones arise.  Sparing thought for ancillary tasks seems wasteful—sinful—when there are things to know, words to write, and people to love.  

So things, as they do, fall apart.


*I’ve yet to re-read Moby Dick, but I’ve no defense for that.
**She also teaches us to never, ever to talk to the police.    


  1. I'm going to point Jennifer to this post; you've nicely encapsulated many aspects of my general craziness re:

    * guilt about non-productivity
    * being a prodigy with regard to despair and failure
    * the GTD book
    * being semi OCD
    * process-mindedness re household tasks

    As an example, not five minutes ago I said to Jennifer "I'd like to make a micro-adjustment to our clean-the-table process: since you always stand up and take the placemats and napkins, and I take the plates, you have more of an ability to manipulate the light switch, so it would be an optimization if you'd always flip the light switch as we enter the kitchen".

    (Yes, this is mental illness. I acknowledge that.)

    Btw, based on the above quote, I'm sure that you either (a) already have, or (b) will soon acquire [ now that I've pointed it out ] Home Comforts: the Science of Keeping House.

    The author is never so rude to actually say it out loud, but her stance is that there is One Right Way to do any given task about the house, and she spells it out.

    She is, almost always, right.

    Written by an utterly insane female lawyer, 'natch.

    1. "A prodigy with regard to despair and failure." - LOL. B and I always joke about having t-shirts made with taglines for various friends and family. That needs to go on mine!

      Have the book, love the book--covered it with clear contact paper so as not to get it dirty--consulted the book extensively to draft the P&Ps.

      A surprising number of manuals written by females turn out to be written by utterly insane lawyers, once you start checking those things. I'm comforted by that, actually.

    2. > Have the book, love the book--covered it with clear contact paper so as not to get it dirty-

      This is a joke, right?

      Seriously, you're joking?

      Because if not, I'm going to have to google to see if there's some sort of 911 number to call when the OCD Singularity is sighted...

    3. It is 100% accurate, but I suppose it's sort of an existential joke. There is actually small bubble under the plastic, which drives me batty.

  2. > **She also teaches us to never, ever to talk to the police.

    LOL, yes.

    I used the phrase "the cops could Martha Stewart X into a cage" in an email to ken @ popehat the other day.

    I learned to never talk to cops from this book:

  3. Ah, my secret twin! I am fascinated by how habits form, too. I am now a decent housekeeper (since I'm not working 60 hours a week and commuting 20 hours a week), but only after I figured out now to own so much stuff that it floods your systems. (The point at which I almost cried during our recent move was when it looked like there was too much stuff to fit in the house.) I wish I'd figured it out before my thirties, but the only way you don't let laundry get backed up is to have enough room for all the clothes/linens -- which generally means getting rid of so much stuff that you have plenty of storage. Or in my case, consigning my husband to a tiny bit of hanging space and hoarding the rest myself.

    Anyway, I used to think I didn't read self-help books, but then I joined Goodreads and discovered...yes. Yes, I did. A lot of them.

    Still haven't made it through Moby Dick, though.

    1. > he only way you don't let laundry get backed up is to have enough room for all the clothes/linens

      I own five polo shirts and 10 or so t-shirts. One sweater, one jacket, two shorts, two jeans. And I think that that might be entirely it, as far as clothing.

      No, I'm not really all that Spartan; I just keep my exuberance channeled tightly.

    2. The laundry thing is tough for me, because I somehow accumulate clothes without ever consciously setting out to buy them. And of course, mine are the only ones that don't fit in the drawers.

      When we condensed from a house to an apartment last year, I went through a long zen/minimalism phase, which helped. I successfully purged 50% of what we owned, and everyone was surprised and pleased with the results. This recent mega-clean-a-thon got rid of 10% of our stuff, but another 50% would have been better. It's scary though, and excruciating to do, even though the result is so calming.

      I found the following on my kindle just now when I checked it that tout the benefits of owning less:

      *Zen to Done.
      *The Power of Less.
      *The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life
      *Miss Minimalist: Inspiration to Downsize, Declutter, and Simplify
      *Organizing from the Inside Out

      Clearly, having this many books on minimalism means that they didn't really take. (I also found "Overcoming Perfectionism" - which also didn't!)

      I have been resisting the siren call of "Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens." I have enough difficulty just getting them close to clean.