My home may seem messy and chaotic, but, really, there’s a neat person deep inside me screaming to get out. And like all people with shortcomings, I have a well-developed list of enemies to blame.
This is why, in the new house I’m building, I’m going to confront these enemies head on. The trouble is that this gap between the person I appear to be and the tidy person deep inside of me translates into two different aesthetic values. The defeatist loves rustic, splintery unfinished wood, weathered surfaces, distressed antiques, unmatched china and a cozy lived-in look. The valiant warrior longs for the spit and polish you see in home improvement magazines. But neither of these types wants disorganization and confusion. And neither of these types wants poor sanitation. My split personalities can agree on these at least.
The ideal compromise is for the basic design of the house to give a victory to my inner tidy person, but allow for a few corners of the house where the mail and magazines can pile up. Of course, there has to be room for my colorful collection of fake fruit and vegetable salt and pepper shakers, right.
My inner tidy person would even confess to being perfectly content if the place simply looks clean and neat even if it isn't quite up to the white glove standards of Martha Stewart.
After 64 years of living with my two selves, I’m ready to reveal my enemies. Perhaps my sympathetic but youthful readers can learn in a lot less than 64 years the same lessons I have learned.
Enemy number one is grout. I hate it everywhere. If it is stained a dark color, it can be manageable, but even then it is disgusting. In showers, it becomes mildewed and catches soap scum. On floors, it just gets nasty. At one point, I succumbed to having tile floors in the kitchen with (get this) white grout. I fought vainly to keep it clean and even bought dark gray stain to acknowledge defeat. The tiles eventually cracked as I dropped a few cast iron stew pots on them. So in my new house there will be no tiles and no grout.
The upstairs bedrooms will have oak floors since these have already been salvaged out of the old house and will just about fit. I’ll refinish them so they’ll be durable and shiny, and I hope I can keep them like that. I know that dogs can ruin floors no matter how many coats of polyurethane they are covered with. I’ll have to get lots of washable throw rugs.
The rest of the floors might be vinyl sheeting, linoleum or rubber. Maybe these lack the classy look of brick, tile or stone, but they have no grout.
Even on the walls surrounding my tub and shower I want that wonderful kind of vinyl stuff that looks like tile. The big box hardware stores market this product and the cheap motels that I patronize display it gleamingly. I haven’t done my research on bathroom walls yet, but I know what I do not want and that is grout.
My next enemy is wall-to-wall carpeting. I even hate large expanses of wool carpet simply because you can’t pull it up and hose it all off. There are several nice solutions that provide the kind of warmth a covered floor offers. One is lots of washable throw rugs; another is removable and replaceable squares of carpet made by companies like FLOR; and the third, and my current favorite, is indoor-outdoor carpet that looks a little like a natural grass rug but is actually made of recycled polypropylene. It comes in neutral and dark colors so the occasional lapses of proper housekeeping don’t show badly.
On the rare occasion when the deep cleaning mood strikes, I take them outside (they’re really light) and use Lysol, a scrub brush and the garden hose. Presto. On a sunny warm day, they’re dry before nightfall.
My third enemy is upholstery. Once, I had some upholstered living room chairs, but they looked horrible after a year or two. Since then, I have furnished my house with wicker, below, or park benches and washable cushions.
It might not be particularly comfortable, but I find that guests never overstay their welcome this way. In my new house, I may break down and get a leather or Naugahyde-covered couch, but it will have to be easy to clean.
My fourth enemy is any distance between the kitchen and the big three distractions: the telephone, the Internet and the front door. When the phone rings, when I have to “just check on my e-mail” and when there is a knock on the door, I don’t want to be far away from whatever is on the stove.
Just the other day, I had another in a long list of learning experiences that put this very enemy on the front burner (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word). My last blog post had just been posted on The Washington Post Web site. I was melting butter on the stove, but I wanted to see what my readers had to say about the elevator story. My computer is in the basement, but I’d only be a minute or two at the most. To my delight, there was a fair amount of response to the blog. It was not totally favorable, but it was all thoughtful and worth reading.
The comment that was my ruin was the one about the cat who got caught between the outer and inner door of the elevator. I was in the middle of a heartfelt response when I heard the smoke alarm go off. That smoke alarm saved my life. Upstairs, the kitchen was enveloped in smoke, and flames were shooting up from the pan with the butter in it. Thankfully, I could scrub the cabinets, which are coated with a wonderful thermofoil. I painted the ceiling and the walls, replaced the stove hood and the place looks fine again.
A very near miss. The take-away lessons are threefold: Keep the smoke alarms in good condition; don’t walk away from a lit stove unless you know exactly what is going on; and make sure that all the major distractions are within sight of the stove top.
So in my new house, the front door will be just outside the kitchen; the computer will be in a room adjacent to the kitchen; and there’ll be a phone extension on the kitchen counter.
Maybe my final enemy on my list is my own compulsion to multi-task.
Mary McCutcheon is a retired professor of anthropology at George Mason University. This is her story of transforming her house from something she doesn’t want into something she does.