Friday, November 7, 2008

Slobs Like Us

My daughter Lilah recently had a new friend over for a playdate, which meant that my wife and I spent the preceding two hours frantically cleaning the house. Our goal in any such effort is simple: to deceive our fellow parents into thinking that we are tidy, organized people who are therefore worthy of caring for their child for 2-3 hours. The challenge is that, while we’re trying to clean, Lilah and our dog Hugo play defense against us.

Hugo, a fifty-pound Samoyed, covers most of the house. From the moment I turn on the vacuum, he’s locked to my side, belligerently nosing the carpet-head every 60-90 seconds. Whenever I encounter something that belongs to him—his rope toy, a tennis ball, a mangled scrap of rawhide—I relocate it to his crate, just to get it out of the way. Of course, touching the object immediately makes it fascinating, so Hugo is forced to spend a moment re-familiarizing himself with it in his crate. And then thirty second later, he’s back at my side, dropping the item right where I’d found it.

I’ve developed a theory about why Hugo is so interested in the vacuum:

As far as I can tell, Hugo’s purpose in life is to distribute fluffy tumbleweeds of white fur throughout our house, whereas the vacuum exists solely to remove these tumbleweeds. Over time, I think Hugo glimpsed the yin-and-yang nature of their relationship, but his tiny canine brain gets lost in the interdependent duality of it all. Do I hate the vacuum, or do I love it? If the vacuum ceased to exist, would I disappear as well? And then, just as he’s about to figure it all out, I go and move one of his toys. His brain reboots, and he has to start over from the beginning.

Lilah’s domain is the playroom, which usually resembles the debris field from some horrific Disney Princess plane crash. In theory, Lilah is present to “help” with the cleaning, which means that she spends most of her time lolling on the floor and periodically calling out, “Hey, look what I found!” She also keeps an eye on me to ensure that I don’t attempt to discard something important.

To be honest, “cleaning” is way too strong a word for what we do in the playroom—we’re really just shoveling stuff from the rug into the bins at its perimeter. A recent lab analysis of our playroom clutter revealed that it is composed of the following elements (percentages are by psychic weight):

27%Dress-up clothes: princess dresses, ballerina gear, and miscellaneous fairy-phernalia.
6%The Polly Pockets Posse: tiny dolls, tiny clothes, tiny pets, and tiny pet clothes.
2%Naked Barbies.
2%Barbies who will soon be naked.
2%Recently naked Barbies who are now wearing outfits made from Kleenex and Scotch Tape.
3%Crumpled tissues, Christmas ribbons, smashed Goldfish crackers.
3%McDonald’s Happy Meal toys (handled once and forgotten).
3%Lite-Brite pegs, plastic “Don’t Spill The Beans” beans, and loose jigsaw puzzle pieces.
52%Things that are broken and/or missing essential parts but which are still FAR TOO SPECIAL to be thrown away.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that there’s an inverse relationship between how well we know our visitors and how much we clean for them. In other words: we’ll scour the house the first time someone comes by, but the standard slips with each successive visit.

However, we may adjust our cleanliness standard based on our guests' own tidiness quotient. We don’t want our neat-nick friends to feel uncomfortable, so their visits might warrant extra cleaning for years to come. And yes, it has occurred to me that, like us, these seemingly OCD friends might be faking it. This is a disturbing possibility—so much senseless cleaning—but I also think it’s unlikely. Try as we might, slobs like us can never achieve true cleanliness—it’s always obvious that we’ve made an effort, but equally obvious that the situation is temporary, the clutter and filth already creeping in from every corner.

So if you should visit our house and find dirty socks caught in the couch cushions, a pot of petrified mac & cheese on the stove, and the dog licking something sticky off one of the kitchen chairs, please don’t be alarmed. Just realize that our not cleaning for you is actually a compliment, a sign of how comfortable we are with you. Or I suppose it could mean that we think you’re a slob too. Either way, welcome to our home…just watch where you sit.