Thursday, May 07, 2009

Defining Terms

There were, and probably will continue to be, many undigested thoughts about homemaking after I posted the last entry. As I mentioned, both Joanna and Marta are doing the job, living the vocation, with people depending on them, whereas my thoughts are more theoretical still. (My roommate was VERY pleased with the clean kitchen yesterday though. And I can now see the surfaces of both my computer and work desks.) So these are just some disconnected, unformed thoughts I'm presently grappling with, and striving to make sense of. Normally I'd do more of this on my own, but for now I seem to need to bounce my thoughts off the larger blogosphere. You've been warned; proceed at your own discretion.


An important thing I've learned living with roommates is, home is an archetypal concept. This means everyone has very strong, deep, personal definitions for the term, and -this is key, follow me closely here- we often mistakenly assume everyone else has the SAME DEFINITION. That's where the trouble often starts.

Let me give an example. After college my first living situation was with four friends in a big house. My friend B and I were in agreement that the dinner dishes were to be done after dinner. What it took us a while to discover was, we each had a different understanding of WHEN DINNER WAS OVER. B had grown up in a household where one snatched the dishes off the table the instant the last bite was taken, preferably while still chewing. I grew up in a household where finishing up dinner was a protracted affair of general family time; second cups of tea were drunk, stories and conversations were allowed to end naturally in a sedate manner. Do you see the conflict in the making? Neither did we. Back in the group house, when it was B's turn to wash the dishes, I assumed she was snatching the plates out from under our masticating jaws because she had other things she wanted to do when the dishes were done. Initially B thought I was dawdling over the end of the meal when it was my turn to do the dishes in a passive-aggressive attempt to get someone else to do them for me. B figured out the problem before she ever said anything to me about it; I suspect I wouldn't have had a clue anything was up if she hadn't told me what her thinking had been. She came to see that I did, in fact, get the dishes done, usually only about ten minutes later than she would have (but ten minutes is an eternity, when you think someone is waiting you out), and more importantly, she realized, and revealed to me, that there were unspoken assumptions we each had about how these things were to be done. We didn't merely have different approaches, we were previously unaware that there WERE OTHER APPROACHES.

Generally when we decide to live with another person or two, we have probably asked ourselves the big questions about group living (smoking or non, drinking or non, noise-levels, and yes, cleaning issues), but there are likely to be a host of unconscious assumptions that won't become conscious (assuming they ever do) until they've generated conflicts. Cleaning is perhaps the biggest arena for these conflicts, perhaps because clean is an equally archetypal (deeply personal) concept. On the Felix-to-Oscar Scale, I probably fall somewhere in the middle, closer to Felix on the dirt front, closer to Oscar on the clutter front, with fluctuations usually related to my mood and unorthodox schedule; one can often map the progress of a play or project in my life, for example, by looking at my residence; the deeper I am in the project, the worse the clutter is. Tech week, it will look like a paper and clothing bomb went off in the place. So in my position as a clean-continuum 3 (which I think is akin to a Kinsey 3) I have been the Oscar making some clean-freak unhappy, but I've also been the Felix wondering why it's so damn hard to hang your coat up in the closet once in a while. Initially I felt that the person with the most rigid views of cleanliness got to set the standards, because, well, clean is just more virtuous, right? Cleaner is always better, and it's unfair for slobs to make other people live amidst their messes, right? It's inconsiderate, disrespectful even, a way of dominating a space unfairly.

I think I'm still more of that mind than not, but over the years I've come to the conclusion that in every group living situation, an understanding of what 'clean' means has to be made explicit. It needs to be discussed, and yes, compromises have to be reached. Maybe the slobby shmoes need to do more of the adjusting, especially in shared spaces, but if a viable, working system is going to be created, the clean-freaks may have to shift some too.

There are nuances to this situation in a heterosexual arrangement that I have witnessed, but obviously haven't experienced (or again, I have played every role, with both male and female roommates). Women are more likely to fear being judged by others if the place is less than pristine, while men will fear ridicule if their places seems too clean or 'interior decorated'. Be honest, which one did you consider more manly, Oscar or Felix? Who got portrayed as ridiculous more often? Who was more likely to be the butt of the joke? Which one seemed fussy and effeminate, which are, of course, the worst things you can call a guy? A man is also likely to play the Ignorance Card, thus making it a struggle for the woman between teaching her caveman how to mope the floor correctly --perhaps having to stand over him the whole time-- or just doing it herself.

So experience has taught me that terms need to be defined, sometimes in detail that can seem ridiculous, in each new living arrangement if a truly equitable arrangement is going to be achieved. My recent living arrangements have often come with significantly lower expectations. More than one person has commented over the years that this apartment 'is surprisingly clean for two guys living together." Societal double standards still give us an A for effort; if we avoid living in a junk heap, with bacteria the size of beagles frisking about the place, we get the good housekeeping seal of approval (and yes, it's almost always been women making this observation). We benefit from lower expectations, but I can't help but wonder if that's not the way to go in most situations. Both Joanna and Marta point out that throughout history showcase homes -even middle class ones- often have involved paid servants to do much of the work. It's interesting to note that I am presently typing in what was almost certainly the maid's quarters in this apartment. I live in Harlem, in a building built in 1909. This apartment has five rooms, including this tiny space. In both Dickens and Austen one will find examples of families who are considered destitute, but still have a live-in servant. Our standards of what is possible may need some serious adjusting.

In this vein, just as it's better to commit to a three-times-a-week exercise regimen (that one actually keeps) as opposed to an every day arrangement (that will never, ever, ever happen), so it's better to have a standard of clean that everyone involved understands and will maintain. Discussions like this may also help unearth what just isn't negotiable. If you find you can't agree on a minimum, it's better to find out before the conflicts start, right? With roommates this sort of thing can be a make-or-break situation, while with lovers and partners, my limited experience tells me a much more complex arrangement gets created, with a delicate balance spanning across many levels of homemaking. Maybe he seems to be INCAPABLE OF PUTTING HIS DIRTY SOCKS IN THE HAMPER LIKE A GROWN-UP, but he always has dinner waiting for me when I get home, and listens when I talk about my day, so let's call it even. I guess this touches again on the distinction I draw between homemaking and housekeeping.

It's funny to realize that in all my babbling on, I'm still not getting at the question of homemaking as vocation, which is the issue at the center of all this for me, and I think my fellow bloggers. Over the years I've certainly written more than one entry about how quotidian tasks have taken on a deeper significance -and pleasure- for me, becoming paths to meditation. Cleaning, or preparing a meal can often be a way for me to immerse myself in real life, when my brain has gone into the stratosphere. All that seems very self-directed though, or at least highly internal. It's vocation as connection with self, or the divine. I guess what I'm starting to explore, ever so ineptly, is how my home can be an arena for relating to others. I've been better at that in the past, but I'm out of practice. I'll get back to you on that.


My sister recounted a childhood experience to me not long ago; she was maybe six or seven years old, and was seeing a male playmate out the door one day, taking him past Mom reading in the living room. Before he left, the kid looked around the house and observed, "your mom doesn't clean much, does she?" After he left, Mom called Mary over to remind her that cleaning wasn't just the mom's job, that it was the responsibility of everyone who lived there. Even at that age, Mary felt Mom was preaching to the choir; she also remembers thinking her obnoxious friend should have noticed the smell of something delicious cooking for dinner. I haven't even begun to excavate all the reasons I love this story.


Birdie said...

I've been thinking about expectations and here you go and write about it. Expectations change only with communication or with a wet fish across the face (which is a form of communication, come to think of it). I have to think more about this, now that you've set me on it.

Jeaux said...

In my experience, guys are often more obsessive neat freaks than are women. But only if they can browbeat the women into doing all the work. "Before he left, the kid looked around the house and observed, "your mom doesn't clean much, does she?" See what I mean. It's instinctive.

tornwordo said...

I found, being the worst slob you can imagine, that I can motivate myself by saying, "I love my home and the person I live with so I will clean up, do laundry, dishes, trash whatever to demonstrate this love." It's still never clean enough for him.

And dishes are done the next morning, didn't you know that?

Beth said...

First time commenting...I work at a college and give this speech ALL THE TIME. What people define as "clean" differs very widely and we often make the assumption that someone is disrespectful if they don't maintain our view of clean.

Greg said...

I'm enjoying this ongoing dialogue on the subject, for sure.

Couldn't help chuckling at the mental image of your apartment during Tech Week for a show...sounds a lot like my place when events at work are coming fast and furious, or during high gardening season if there hasn't been rain to keep me indoors.

I will admit I sometimes fall into the Tornwordo camp about dishes, although from meals that aren't just for me, after dinner's usually the best time for that (and then, well after, not as the last fork clatters against the table - gosh those early meals between you and B must've been just fraught with tension). I try never to leave for work with dishes in the sink, at least. It's always so much nicer to come home to a general sense of the kitchen, at least. ; )

Patrick said...

Birdie: yes, I think a wet fish across the mush can be a passionate form of communication, though it may run the risk of generating some distracting questions before the issue at hand gets addressed ("did you just slap me with a fish? Who the hell hits people with fish? Who the hell goes about carrying wet fish? Did that fish have barbs?").

One of the things I love best about this blogging interwebs phenomenon is the way synchronicity takes on new layers, possibly even gets sped up. I can't wait to see what you have to say about expectations.

Jeaux: you and Birdie both made me laugh out loud; your observation is spot on. Funnily enough I have had roommates decide housework was all my job, but they'd set the standards. There was a time when guilt-tripping was a very effective way to motivate me. I wonder if any of my roommates feel I tried to pull this on them? Yikes. Well, my conscience is clear, at least for now.

Torn: yes, that's it exactly, we take the actions because we know it helps build a better environment and relationship, even if we secretly don't really care that much about how things look. And I'll admit your approach has been used more than once in this household. I'd have to say my stance on dishes has definitely mellowed over the years.

Greg: yes, deciding when one wants to see a clean kitchen is also a key issue in all this. You know the layout of my apartment, so I think the dishes get done the night before most often because I'd prefer not to see them first thing in the morning as I leave my bedroom. Which, it should be admitted, is presently a dumping ground for all sorts of homeless things. Hmm. Maybe that's why I'v been sleeping so poorly. I guess I just figured out what I'm doing with my Sunday.

Greg said...

"mush can"?!?!

Patrick said...

Beth: My apologies, I didn't mean to skip you! It was carelessness, not a deliberate snub. I wanted to say it was reassuring too to get your note (and everyone else's) because when I first posted this entry, I wondered if what had been a series of epiphanies for me over the years was strictly in the 'duh' department for everyone else. I'd forgotten how much being away at college gives people their first tastes of different homemaking styles. Glad to know people like you have the foresight to address it head on.

Butch said...

I think with any shared living arrangement, one brings to the match many positives but,that tedious negative baggage can bring down a relationship of house mates faster than anything.

It's best to get it out in the very beginning and put some rules in place with everyone agreeing to follow them before anyone commits to a living arrangement involving multiple housemates. It they can start with a clean slate, one can change old habits when properly motivated. There are some tasks that a roommate may never want to do and another can take that chore over in exchange for something else. With communication, the possibilities are endless.

Marta said...

patrick: i have a whole dissertation i could write about this, but no attention span right now.... suffice it to say, miscommunication and misunderstood expectations about housekeeping in any sort of relationship happens all to often. julie and i have really only recently figured out how to make this all work for both of us, and we've been living together for over 20 years!