After putting the baby to bed the other night, feeling exhausted and oppressed by my household duties, I cleaned the entire apartment.  By this I mean I put away the baby’s toys, washed the dishes, wiped down all three inches of countertop, swept most visible sections of the floor, and palmed a tumbleweed of dog hair off the rug. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, and was by far the longest stretch of housework I’d done all day.  When my husband came home from whatever it is he does all day, I made him dinner.  By this I mean I boiled some pasta.  And THEN I had to WORK.  By this I mean, I put on my pajamas and sat on the couch with a glass of wine and some student stories.   I do everything around here, I thought, self-pityingly.  Sheesh!  And, as a non-New Yorker friend said recently in amazement, “I bet you don’t even have a dishwasher! How do you do it?” 

 

“Well,” I responded, “My life is horrible.”

 

But it has occurred to me of late that housekeeping used to be a much more odious thing, and to remind myself of this I read Susan Strasser’s excellent book Never Done, a history of American housework.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has ever had to do a modicum of housework.  There is nothing like a perusal of pre-industrial housekeeping practices to make sorting the recycling feel like a day at the spa.  Seriously, did you know that everything used to suck way worse than it does now? 

 

Exhibit A.  Cooking.

 

Sometimes I have the thought, Greasy old unevenly-cooking, partially disabled rental apartment stove, I hate you.  But you know what really sucked?  Cooking over an open freaking fire, all sparking with burning cinders and scorching gates, using cast-iron utensils that weighed 8,000 lbs each.  Labor-intensiveness aside, just imagine all the ways an underfoot toddler could injure herself in such a kitchen!  Wait, don’t actually.  It’s too gruesome. And then even coal or wood stoves, once they came along, still took at least an hour a day just to maintain, what with all the fire-tending and coal-carrying and stove-blacking.  I can totally relate to this because every few months or so I have to relight the pilot light on my stove, which takes an entire match and sometimes dozens of seconds.

 

Strasser’s book also reminded me how once upon a time food arrived in the kitchen unprepared.  No, really unprepared.  As in, each ingredient had to be processed by hand – chickens plucked, hams blanched, coffee roasted, spices ground, flour sifted, oatmeal soaked, and so on. By way of contrast, I was once reduced to tears by the thought of all the work involved with heating up a premade veggie corn dog in the toaster oven.  Granted, I was pregnant and very tired, but so, I imagine, were many of our great-grandmothers while they were nurturing yeast.

 

Exhibit B.  Laundry.

 

I live in an old brownstone without a washing machine, which has led many a person to gasp in protest, “But you need laundry with the baby, right?”  Well guess what I found out from this book? No one used to have a washing machine! And one wash used fifty gallons of water, which of course had to be moved and heated by hand.  And oh yeah, they hadn’t invented detergent yet. Remember that chapter in Little House in the Big Woods where they describe making soap from pig lard? Ewwwwww.

 

No surprise then that Strasser writes, “Of all the household chores that depended on hauling water and building fires to heat it, laundry earned the most complaints … it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.”  And here’s a little tidbit for you: in the beginning of the 20th century commercial laundries became popular and the task seemed to be on its way out of the house right along with making your own clothes and shoes.  Then the invention of the electric washing machine plunked the act of laundry right back into the lap of the housewife, a development Strasser calls a “raw deal.” 

 

So guess what this means? This means I have ingeniously bucked the housewife-oppressing system!  Laundry doesn’t isolate me in my basement OR take up two days of my time a week OR actually any of my time, since I drop it off at the Laundromat and pick it up some hours later all neatly folded into a tiny space-puck of mathematically impossible dimensions.  Do you see what this means? I am living the dream of the pre-industrial housewife. Thank you, Crystal Clean Laundromat!

 

Exhibit C. Extra Credit.

 

Back when the only out-of-home “daycare” was the “orphanage,” cash-strapped nineteenth century mothers cared for their children while tending the home fires (literally) and often taking in work they could do at home – extra laundry or mending for example.  In other words, they did what I do – take care of baby, take care of household, work a little from home – but in long skirts and without running water, manufactured soap, or baby toys that light up.  Or lattes.  Or mom-tot yoga.

 

In conclusion: suck it up, me.  Things are pretty awesome!  Now if you’ll all excuse me.  I have a stressful night ahead: a bathtub full of un-lugged, un-boiled hot water, and then off to sleep in sheets washed, luxury of luxury, by somebody else.

Having graduated from Evergreen State College with plaudits from a wide range of teachers, I was exposed to all kinds of theory. Feminist theory, film theory, Marxist theory, cultural theory, sexual theory, Marxist feminist cultural film theory; theory wrapped in iceberg lettuce and swallowed with Ranch dressing. There is a lot of theory in an institution like Evergreen, and I read scads of it.

December 11, 2009 – L.A.X.

In general, I feel good about this. Three months isn’t such a long time, and I certainly wasn’t accomplishing anything in L.A. So what if all anyone has told us about Brazil is that it’s dangerous, and we’ll be beaten and robbed within seconds of landing in Sao Paulo. Just because everyone has a third- or fourth-hand account of a girl who was slashed or a guy who was shot doesn’t mean we’ll be slashed and shot. Never mind that story in the Times about how Brazilian police kill hundreds of innocent people a year. Just don’t ask the police for help. And just don’t think about that other story in the Times that said gangmembers in one of Rio’s favelas just shot down a police helicopter. That was Rio.

Everything’s going to be fine.

 

December 15 – Sao Paulo

On Sunday, Day One, it was raining, so after breakfast we went to a nearby mall. I don’t see how Sao Paulo can be dangerous. At the entrance a man stands with a machine gun strapped to his bulletproof vest, the cuffs of his black cargo pants tucked into his army boots. That seems to be the hip look for scary paramilitary types. When a man tucks his pants into his boots, you can just assume he has no problem with cold-blooded murder. Think about it: those Blackwater Nazis? Tuckers, to a man.

Inside, there are five security guards for every civilian. Men in dark jackets stand about thirty feet apart, watching every move we make.  When I take my wallet out of my pocket to pay for some cheesebread, I do it very slowly.

Yes! We successfully ordered cheesebread! We communicate with the natives via pointing at what we want. As a result, we tend not to get exactly what we want, but we are adaptable and our stomachs are strong.

 

December 16

Stomach pain!

Shouldn’t have gone from being vegetarian straight to eating chicken wrapped in bacon.

Also, Portuguese is hard. It shares words with Spanish, but Brazilians pronounce the Rs like Hs at the beginning of words but like Ds in the middle of words. They pronounce Ds like Js, and Ts like CHs (as in “Chanukah”), except when they don’t, and I have no idea when that is. Basically I have to rely on context to make a guess about what people are saying to me.

Have discovered local Starbucks. Emotions: conflicted.

 

December 17

Karen is jealous that I get to hang out all day while she has to work. I sympathize, but hey, I’m working. These crossword puzzles aren’t going to do themselves! I mean, I’m trying to plot my novel, but well, it sucks. And right now, someone is using a circular saw right on the other side of this wall, and the sound is like a demon screeching inside my head. I would leave this place, but I’m waiting for coffee. Still learning the local customs. I’m relying wholly on tone and context here, but I think the barista just said to me, “Sit down, bitch! I’ll bring you your goddamn coffee when it’s ready!”

I miss my dog.

 

December 18

Brazilian greetings are complicated. Before noon, it’s “Bom dia!” (but you say, “Bong gee-a”). Then, “Boa Tarde!” (“Ta-ch-jee!”) and then at night, “Boa Noite” (“Noichee or Noich.”) But you also might get, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” which are apparently interchangeable. If someone says “Tudo bem?” your response is supposed to be “Tudo bom!” and vice versa, but so far all Karen and I have been able to do is smile and repeat whatever they’ve said to us, or lapse into a lame “Hi.”

I’m at a mall. I flew six thousand miles to sit in a mall. Next to Starbucks. But in my defense, it’s an outdoor mall, and it’s the only place in like a three-mile radius where you can be outside without suffering the noise and air pollution from the cars that clog every street.  And I’m not at Starbucks. Just next to it. At Fran’s Café, which, I’ve been told, is the Brazilian Starbucks.

There are security guards everywhere. The patrons of this mall are professionals and the super-rich. I’m the sketchiest-looking person here.

 

December 19

I did our laundry for the first time yesterday. It’s a complicated business, that begins with my calling housekeeping and saying, “Posso reservar a lavanderia?” and the housekeeper’s saying, “Que?” and my trying again and her saying something unintelligible that goes on way too long but ends abruptly so that the silence extends into awkward territory until I say, “Um…” and she says, “Agora! Agora!” and I say, “Oh, now? OK!”

I took the elevator down to the stiflingly hot basement where the laundry room is and where the housekeepers all marvel at the gringo man doing laundry. I don’t know much about Brazil yet, but I’m guessing they don’t have house-husbands here. I think of saying in Portuguese, “A woman’s work is never done!” but my courage fails me.

The machines are slow and stubborn, and the dryers don’t actually dry. I used up my entire allotted three-hour window, and still had to hang clothes from every possible place in the apartment to dry them. I managed to hang all of Karen’s undies on hangers, five each, which I then hung from our dining table chandelier. If all else fails, I will become a panty-mobile maker and sell my crafts by the roadside.

 

January 4, 2010

New year, old shit. Trouble sleeping. How can I detach the critical part of my brain?

I’m in the penthouse common room of the hotel. The view is 360 degrees of high-rise buildings, beautiful in a sort of tragic, pre-apocalyptic way. Every now and then a helicopter flies by and keeps going or lands on one of the office buildings in the neighborhood. Those guys — the ones who take helicopters around the city — just have to be all-star douchebags. There’s just no way around it.

There are security cameras in here. They’re also in the hallway outside our room, and in the elevators. Do they make me want to adjust my scrotum and pick my nose more than usual, or am I just more aware of these urges?

 

January 7

The housekeeper is messing with me. I leave the room at the same time every day to allow her to clean, but today I leave for two hours and come back, and she still hasn’t been here. What do I do? I am a home-person. I’m the roommate about whom other roommates moan to their friends, “He’s always home!”

I can only sit in so many cafés, and the hotel roof gets too hot in the afternoons. Where can I go?  Who will care for me? Is this how my ancestors felt? Would building a golden calf make me feel any better?

 

January 8

No.

 

January 9? 10?

I’ve lost track. Feeling a bit… low. I’m working at the juice place I’ve been going to so the servers at the cafés don’t think I’m stalking them. It’s pouring rain. It’s rained every day that we’ve been here, which is fine with me. I could go back to the room, switch the green Favor Arrumar o Quarto card on the door handle back over to the red Favor Não Incomodar, but then the room won’t be cleaned! What if we should want to shower again today?! The towels will be — gasp! — damp!

Karen says she doesn’t think the room needs to be cleaned every day — we certainly don’t have a housekeeper in real life — but I’m afraid of setting a precedent. Skip a day and the housekeeper may never come back. Or skip a day, and then I’ll skip two, and then three. Before we know it, we’ll be living like animals.

Also, I just left the hotel, and I can’t run that gauntlet again. On my way out I had to walk past the front desk, where no fewer than four blue-blazered hotel staffers milled around, all smiling fakely and saying, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” or “Bom Dia!” Then there was the stoic security guard at the door, his deep “Bom Dia,” and then the three valet parking attendants. I just nodded and kept walking, like someone who is busy, very busy. No time for chit-chat, I have places to be, people to order coffee from!

No. Can’t go back to the hotel.

 

January 11?

Why can’t I get my shit together and get some work done? What’s my problem? Why won’t the housekeeper be consistent? Why doesn’t this hotel have a back door?

It’s too hot to think in this climate.

Stomach pain is back. Yesterday we accidentally ordered a stew that had at least four different animals in it.

When we get back to the States, I’m going vegan.




I come from a long line of unenthusiastic housekeepers. My maternal grandmother was known for blowing up kitchens (a particularly awkward situation as my grandfather was a clergyman and they were therefore always residents in church-owned homes). My paternal grandmother’s culinary ambitions began and ended with Jell-o mold, albeit the dressed-up variety with fruit cocktail bits suspended within like edible gems. Growing up, my house was a preferred place to play among my friends because you could make a mess, which made it ideal for craft projects of all sorts.

 

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that I have turned out to be the kind of stay-at-home mom (I mean, I work but let’s face it, I’m at home with the baby all day) whose attitude towards housework could be best described as “fatalistic.” I’ll be on knees flaking shingles of dried squash and baby oatmeal off the kitchen floor and think, Meh, this is just going to get dirty again later, leaving an opaque ghost of the original mess. Because, I mean, it is. Whether I do a stellar job cleaning it or a crappy one, tomorrow the baby is just going to joyfully fling more food onto that same floor. Lying on the floor playing with Harper I’ll go into a kind of a trance looking at the inch of dust underneath the couch. Man. Gross. Someone should really sweep that. But the kind of cleaning that involves actually moving furniture is just completely beyond my capabilities. I will passionately vacuum the living room rug, because I hate linty rugs (aesthetically speaking – our colorful Iranian rug that does a better job of camouflaging dog hair goes basically untouched), but every time I look at the couch and think, Nah. Because, I mean, I just moved the couch and mopped beneath it in, um September. Last September. How I wish I were exaggerating here for comic effect.

The sad part is, I actually like things to be clean and tidy. Maybe this is true of everyone, although I am pretty sure I count among my friends some slobs who truly don’t mind their own slobby piles and clutter. I hate open cabinets. I hate crumpled pieces of paper and stacks of mail, to the point that, much to my husband’s dismay, I would rather stow mail in a closed drawer or send it straight to the recycling rather than actually go through it. I hate an unmade bed, but I do not much enjoy making beds either. I love a sparkling clean countertop, but I also tend to scatter water glasses and mugs around the apartment to the point that when my husband comes home it looks like I’ve had a rollicking tea party.

To me, one of the mysteries of life has therefore always been, does anyone actually like cleaning? And if so, would any of these people like to come over and wash my city-dust-dimmed curtains? (Just kidding! I washed them. Last spring. No, the last last spring.) I always suspected that no, no body likes cleaning, and that some are just more disciplined than I. Then I met my mother-in-law, who seems to actually enjoy it. This woman’s house is spotless, and she knows tricks like how to get out weird stains using only baking soda and positive energy. I know she reads this blog, so maybe this is as good a time as any to find out once and for all: Ellen, do you actually like cleaning? If so, do you think it is possible to learn to like it? If not, how do you get yourself to do it?

Luckily for me, most people seem to expect very little of a household containing a small baby. I rarely have many people , anyway – the weird exception being a writing workshop I teach out of the apartment one night a week. Fortunately this class is at night, and the room is not terribly well-lit, and I’m hoping most of the people are too preoccupied with their life’s work being dissected in front of them in that inevitable, wonderful, dreadful manner of workshops to examine very closely the tops of my bookshelves, which I have never personally seen but which I expect might be quite dusty.

In the end, I feel that is a kind of curse to both like tidiness and feel overcome by a lethargic sense of hopeless when performing the Sisiphysean task of cleaning the toilet (which, I’m sorry, but is just going to get crapped in again anyway, probably sooner rather than later). My only hope is to strike it rich and get a cleaning lady, or maybe to hypnotize my husband, or possibly to wait until Harper is old enough to bribe with allowance. Then I’ll be sitting pretty, reading a novel with my feet up while she wipes down the refrigerator handle blackened with fingerprints. I’m pretty sure this is how it works once babies become children, and I’ll thank any parents of older kids not to disabuse me of this delicious notion.