Man Cleaning

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Laundry room debris field

I’ve done my share of cleaning house over 30+ years of marriage.  I stayed home with the kids when they were little and waged the losing battle of keeping their chaos at bay.  I once told a college class that managing a house occupied by two toddlers was like composing a term paper with a drunk roommate deleting key passages whenever the writer looked away for a split second.  All accomplishments are doomed to erasure.

Doing chores while surrounded by little barbarians gave me a fatalistic approach to house cleaning.  I got in the habit of taking care of the worst of the worst, nibbling at the bits I somewhat cared about, and letting major areas collect dust and debris.

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Dresser top of lost hope

Recently our circumstances have forced me to take on more of the chores than I ever did before.  The kids are grown and gone, so there should be less to do.  But now I’m starting to see things through my wife’s eyes and realize that the cobwebs growing from the ceiling in the back room really shouldn’t be allowed to hang down to eye level.  The strange odor in the laundry room behind the Christmas tree boxes no longer lingers, but its fossilized source really ought to be removed (dead lizard or corn snake?).  Ancient stains on the side of the fridge could be scrubbed off, as well as stratified layers of greasy fuzz on the kitchen ceiling fan.

I eventually come to the conclusion that I could start at one end of the house and scrub inch by inch.  Repainting and patching could follow.  New curtains could replace the moth eaten ones over the front window, and the coat closet could be excavated for usable tennis rackets, tennis balls, and vacuum cleaner attachments from amongst the debris at the bottom.  The job seems endless.

And now I begin to understand a major difference between the sexes.  Women tend to see housework as a manageable project that produces a cozy nest if the right effort is applied, if their housemate abstains from random acts of stinky sock/wet towel dropping.  Men see the interior of a house and shut down.

Housework induced catatonia in males is not always caused by laziness, but more often by willful blindness in the face of overwhelming odds.  The blindness has no evil intent, but is more a matter of self-preservation.  A man who has taken the time to do a thorough survey of his domestic environment is like an astronaut spacewalking and contemplating the stars.  He feels so small compared to a vast number of tasks spread over a mini-universe of domestic space.

When confronted by the infinite, it’s best for a man to pretend that the majority of it does not exist.  He pops a beer, sits in a recliner and waves to his friends, the spiders hanging all around him.  He might knock down their webs down in a day or two, but at that moment he just wants a little company.

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Entropic night stand

Now I lay me down to sleep

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come down with a common malady:  getting enough sleep is an erratic and fitful nightly exercise.  I have to be completely exhausted to sleep seven or eight hours in a row, and my average night’s sleep when all of the fragments are added together usually adds up to around five or six.  Some of this is my fault.  I don’t have a bedtime ritual that I follow with any regularity.  Sometimes at eleven I write, or read, or catch up on e-mails, or watch TV.  I tell myself that it’s lights out at twelve, but am not good at following my own orders.  I often find myself twisted like a pretzel in an odd position while lying on my living room sofa with the TV playing an infomercial.  It’s usually three in the morning, and the last thing I remember before dozing off was a comedian telling a political joke.

At other times something random wakes me up after having gone to bed at a decent time.  A tree branch may have landed on the roof.  The neighbor, whose carport is twelve or fifteen feet away from my bedroom window, often receives predawn guests who toot their horns or engage in loud conversations about their exciting young lives.  Critters contribute to the disruption of my rest.  Hoot owls have been known to perch in nearby trees, and the neighborhood has its share of dogs that are left outdoors at night and given the opportunity to bark at passing raccoons, possums, and armadillos.  Cars slow down for a turn around a corner across from my house, and some of their drivers like to play music loudly enough so that the thumping of the bass notes reminds me of the more traumatic passages from Poe’s, “The Telltale Heart”.

And sometimes my body wakes me up.  I don’t suffer from prostate issues yet, but my neck and shoulders and hips sometimes decide to say hello to me in the wee hours.  My spine has a slight curvature in my upper back leading to intermittent pinching of nerves in the aforementioned joint areas and tight muscles that try to lock me into a robotic inability to freely turn my head and lift an arm.  When I paint a lot I further aggravate these symptoms.  A satisfying day of work can lead to a long night of sleeplessness.

If I wake up after getting three or four hours of sleep I’m usually alert for one or two hours before finally feeling the urge to close my eyes.  I have plenty to think about; my mind races and just won’t slow down and shut up.  I’m a man my late fifties so I’m visited by all sorts of mental specters.  I can worry about retirement, the health and future of loved ones,  and job concerns.  I can brood over career disappointments and past actions that I still wish that I could take back.  I can also wonder about that odd noise I just heard coming from the opposite end of the house.  It sounded like the refrigerator rumbling as it went through a defrost cycle, but might have been some neighborhood druggy trying to open a locked door.  There have been break-ins in our neighborhood throughout the quarter century that we’ve lived here, and it’s not an idle worry to wonder if our house is next.

This week I’ve had two very different experiences while I rested my head on my pillow.  On Tuesday I heard a helicopter chop-chop-chopping overhead as it circled the neighborhood at a low altitude.  I closed my eyes and tried to ignore it, and was nearly asleep when I heard a voice calling down from the heavens.  The tone was so flat and mechanical that I doubted that I was being visited by anything celestial.  The message was repeated twice more, and I finally deciphered it.   I heard:  “You there by the fence, behind the building–come out with your hands up.”

Normally I would have been concerned that the police were hunting down someone within 50 or so yards of my back door, but for some reason I didn’t care.  I was reasonably sure that I had locked all my doors and wasn’t concerned that a punk on the run might manage to break in in an attempt to hide from the police.  I’d deal with it if it happened.  My fatalism probably came from deep fatigue–I was too tired to care.

Last night went much differently.  As I lay down I was overcome by a feeling of peace that washed through my body.  I’ve felt this comforting presence before in times of trouble and illness, but have never been able to identify its source or to predict its erratic schedule of visitations.  It comes when it comes and can’t be invited or coerced.  At times the visitation feels almost personal, like someone or something is looking out for my welfare.  Sometimes I receive intuitive messages from this presence, and last night it was, “I will always be with you.”

My departed sister and grandfather have come to me in dreams before.  This wasn’t a dream, and my consoler’s identity remained hidden from me.  My solace vanished like an elf in a fairy tale when I asked it, “But who are you?”

I felt stupid for letting my curiosity get the better of me instead of just being thankful for the moment.  Nevertheless I slept through till morning and woke with the feeling that I had been touched by something eternal the night before.