Housecleaning: The Story of One Friday Morning

The house has gotten rather disgusting, what with one thing and another: we’ve had almost two straight weeks of serious domestic chaos (meaning, Life as We Know It has forced me to focus on things other than doing the bare minimum of household-maintenance, and as a result while we’ve always had clean underwear, the state of the house otherwise got to near-revolting — no, scratch that. It got pretty gross). The sky was gray and the air damp: it felt like rain. If it was going to be a grim, depressing-looking day, I might as well stay in and make the most of a few hours of uninterrupted time here. I knew that there were dust bunnies on the stairs and I knew that the bathtub was all scummy and I knew that I needed to do laundry again (again!) so as soon as I packed my daughter off to school this morning I said, “OK, Let’s Do This.”

I began, as I often do, by clearing the countertop at the bathroom sink we use the most. I took care of that, including dusting the lightbulbs above the mirror there. Then I scrubbed the bathtub. I decided to leave the third floor alone this week — I did it quite thoroughly two weeks ago, and the only person who uses it really is my husband, and if he’s not happy with it, he can either take care of it himself or wait for me to have the intestinal fortitude to deal with it. The last time I cleaned the bathroom up there, I discovered the sink wasn’t draining right, and had to spend about thirty minutes dealing with the clogged drain, which wasn’t my idea of fun. So I’m happy to put that off for a little while.

Once the second floor bathroom was tackled, it was time to vacuum. I carried the vacuum cleaner upstairs and plugged it in and then looked into my daughter’s room. She has a big rug in her room and the cats love to claw at it and roll around on it, which is fine — it’s not a fancy rug, just a thing we got at Ikea about a decade ago; it can be trashed by the cats and none of us will mind.
Thing was, my daughter’s room was such a goddamned mess I couldn’t just vacuum: I had to straighten up a bit before I could vacuum. I hate this. Now, I am not what you’d call a minimalist, in my approach to life: I have a lot of stuff, and I like having it around. It drives my husband nuts. Unfortunately, my daughter seems to have inherited my tendencies, and elaborated upon them: not only does she have a lot of stuff and want it around, she likes to have it around on the floor, and is not fazed by things like little tiny snips of paper being scattered all over the place. Little peel-off-sticker-backs are all over the floor in my daughter’s room, all the time. Little scraps of paper from the time she decided it would be fun to cut out paper dolls. Little rocks. Little shells. Little THINGS. All over the place.
So this is a room that really needs vacuuming, but the thing is, there are also piles of books all over the place, and stuffed animals, and maybe some socks that were supposed to make it into the laundry basket but didn’t, in addition to the precious little shells, which, if I vacuum them up, there will be hell to pay, because those little shells are IMPORTANT. I can’t say it’s chaos, really, but it is a mess. However, it is my job to corral this mess a little once in a while, and I accept that. (I don’t do total room overhauls anymore: my daughter’s old enough to do this. But vacuuming isn’t something she can do yet — she can’t even lift the machine — so, I bite the bullet periodically.) I made the bed (which is a mattress on the floor — you need to have the bed neat in order to vacuum correctly)and did some cursory straightening up enough that I could do the rug, and I vacuumed the rug and also did the closet floor. I have no idea what she does that causes the pillows to leak feathers like this, but there were a lot of feathers around; there were also about 2 cups of little paper snips and some ponytail holders (I rescued those), in addition to the anticipated general schmutz.

It was as I went to vacuum over by the side of the bed that I noticed the wadded up tissue on the floor. “Jeez,” I thought, “can’t she even throw her used Kleenex away?” I picked up the Kleenex, and that was when I noticed the cat puke.

It had been there for a while.

I don’t know if it was there last night, when I was reading to my daughter, the usual bedtime session.

I assume it was there when I went in this morning to say “Good morning, want some breakfast?” She was, at that moment, snuggling with Roger the cat, who seemed perfectly content, and probably hadn’t just recently thrown up.

Usually, when a cat throws up — and it happens pretty often, because, you know, CATS — I either know about it immediately and clean it up immediately, or whoever is first to discover it cleans it up immediately, unless the discoverer is my daughter, who is, for whatever reason, scared to clean it up. I find this annoying, because she’s perfectly capable of using paper towels, but, ok: she is, I give her credit, very good at coming to get me, saying, “The cat gakked,” and she will bring me paper towels and vinegar or whatever I need to clean up the mess.

This was a case where it’s like she tried to get brave and start to clean up the gak, but something happened and her nerves got the best of her so she thought, “I’ll just put this tissue on top and IT’LL BE FINE.”

I’ll tell you: I had to use two rags to clean this mess up. (Don’t worry, they went straight into the washing machine with some bleach, they’re right as rain now.)

But I cleaned it up, muttering to myself, and then I continued vacuuming. I did the bedroom as thoroughly as I could, all things considered; I moved down the staircase (my god, how cat fur will accumulate in the corners of the steps!); I tackled the first floor of the house (Meow Mix crumbs make a very satisfying noise when you vacuum them up). I did the front entryway, and even did the stairs to the basement (which is, truly, cat fur central — and, lucky me, I discovered more cat puke in the basement, in the process, so now that’s taken care of as well).

I ran a load of whites, I ran the dishwasher, I organized the recycling to go out. I dealt with the nasty tubs of leftover food in the fridge that really needed to just face their trash dumpster fate (this happens even to me) and readied the trash to go out. By two p.m., the sun had fought its way through the gray, and the air felt clear and dry. I’ve opened all the windows I can; the house is as clean as it’s going to be this week; and as soon as I take out the trash and recycling, unload the dishwasher, and fold the laundry, I’ll be ready for the weekend.

Well, except that I still have to make dinner tonight.

The Bench Scraper. This sounds like the name of a sports movie, but this is not about sports.

As long as ten years ago, I don’t know for sure, someone gave me a bench scraper. It was a softly waved piece of white rectangular plastic, and one long side of it had a beveled-to-a-point edge and the other long side of it had a silicone or rubber strip. It was meant to be used as a tool in the kitchen for working with dough, but I found it totally useless in this context. I tried. The “sharp” side couldn’t cut through anything well, and the softer side, well, duh: it was too soft to cut anything at all.

The thing was completely useless  to me, but I kept it because I thought, “Some day, I will wish I had this thing.”

In the meantime, somewhat less then ten years ago, I acquired a metal bench scraper at a tag sale, and that thing is lethal and I use it all the time. It has one rolled edge you use as a handle and one sharp sharp sharp edge that I use to cut through dough, dividing raw dough for pizza, cutting biscuits, cooky dough, whatever. It works great and I can run it through the dishwasher without worrying about it melting. It looks kind of like this. It isn’t fancy but it does its job extraordinarily well. This is what you want in most kitchen utensils. You don’t need bells or whistles, you just want the thing to do its job. The metal bench scraper lives in the drawer where I keep the work tools I use most frequently: the Microplanes; the rolling pin; the scissors that come apart for cleaning; the can opener; the garlic press; the silicone-tipped whisk; the tongs. (You’re wondering, What about the silicone spatulas? Where do those live? Answer: they live in their own separate drawer. Yes, the silicone spatulas have their own drawer.)

The white plastic device, on the other hand, lives in a drawer where I keep things I use pretty frequently, but not as frequently as you might guess. Ready at hand in that drawer are: measuring cups; measuring spoons; ladles; a balloon whisk; biscuit cutters; and the white bench scraper. Which I’ve kept there not because I’ve used it, ever, in all these years, but just because it seemed to fit there in a categorical way: “small kitchen utensils that I don’t need a lot but when I need them I want to know where they are.”

Other stuff I keep in this drawer full of things that I hardly ever use:
1. a little plastic thing in the shape of an apple where you take off the top half of the apple and what you’re supposed to do is put your apple that you want to have for lunch in there, and then put the lid on. Supposedly this will keep your apple from getting bruised as you carry it in your bag. It may work, but I’ll never know because I’ve never purchased an apple that fit into it. However, my daughter likes it for carrying snacks now and then, so, fine;

2. All tea balls. I don’t use tea balls, but my husband does. They need to be accessible, but they don’t need to be in my way all the time. So they live in this drawer.

3. Nutcrackers and picks;

4. drinking straws;

5. salad tongs and other more elegant devices one might use to serve salad.

So you get the idea. These are all USEFUL things to be sure: but they are not everyday-on-the-table-or-countertop things, for me, personally.

Well, a few weeks ago, I was dealing with the aftermath of spending several hours working on some really messy cooking projects involving a lot of dough and fillings and frostings; the countertop was a mess. It was the kind of clean-up job where there was nothing for it but to take everything off the countertop, wash the surface down with a clean dishrag, and then wipe up the detergent. As I was contemplating the drag it would be to keep rinsing this countertop to get all the soap off, I suddenly remembered how I deal with wiping water off my shower walls (to reduce mildew growth): I squeegee the shower every day. (Shut up. Don’t laugh at me. It helps.)

But, I reasoned: I did not want to use my shower squeegee on my kitchen countertops. ‘Cause that just seemed…. gross.

On the other hand…. I suddenly remembered that I did — I do — own a thing that is, basically, a kitchen squeegee. That white bench scraper thingy: THIS is what the bendy side of it is for! 

It was a an epiphany. I pulled the white bench scraper from the drawer, got a waiting-to-be-washed bowl from the sink, and began to squeegee the countertop, letting all the scungy, soapy water run straight off the counter into the bowl. It worked like a charm. I got the counter basically clean and almost dry in about two seconds. I dumped the bowl back into the sink, and then I sprayed my usual rubbing alcohol dose on the counter and wiped it dry with a towel. Done and done. The white bench scraper no longer lives in the drawer; it now lives at the kitchen sink, with the dishrag and the bottle of Dawn, and it gets used almost daily. I use it to push water from the countertop near the sink straight into the sink (I used to just use the side of my hand, which, believe me, never worked as well as I thought it should), and I use it to clean my working countertop. And I feel like a fucking genius for doing so.

My husband, who has long been aware of this odd white object in the kitchen drawer (probably because it is near his precious tea ball collection), asked me a few days ago, “Why is this thing living next to the bottle of dishwashing liquid?” I explained, “Because after years of being a useless object, it has suddenly become a very useful object!”
“How so?” asked my ever-curious husband. Ok, he wasn’t curious exactly; he was skeptical. I could feel his skepticism oozing all over the floor (great, more for me to clean up). But I showed him. I explained how a cleaning process that, ok, wasn’t arduous, but was slightly messier and more time-consuming than I’d like, had suddenly been made simpler and easier by using this previously-useless tool. “It’s a small leap for the household,” I concluded. He nodded. “It’s like the time I changed the method for emptying the coffee grounds from the coffeepot, and my life improved exponentially,” he said.

I don’t actually agree that his method is superior to the method I use. But if it works for him, fine and dandy. In the meantime, the white bench scraper lives at the kitchen sink, it gets used, and I’m already wondering what I’ll do when I do something horrible to it by accident or through over-use and I can’t use it anymore. I guess I’ll either get used to the old counter-cleaning system again, or go spend a few bucks on another “useless” bench scraper.

Short and Sweet: Remembering A Housebitch Moment

My husband decided to make pancakes on a recent Saturday morning. He needed 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. I happened to be standing in front of the sugar tub, which I keep a 1/2 cup measuring cup in, all the time. “I’ll get it for you,” I said, trying to be helpful. I scooped up some sugar, eyeballed, shook some out, and held the cup aloft for him to take.
“You can’t just scoop some out,” he scolded. “You have to measure.”
I said, “This is one and a half tablespoons of sugar.” He protested that there was no way I could know that. I said, “Fine, get a measuring spoon, measure it.”
He got a set of measuring spoons and measured it. It was precisely one and a half tablespoons.
“Fine,” he said, grudgingly.
Do not fuck with the Hausfrau, people.

Recalibrating the Oven: or, The Hausfrau Can Google Things, Too.

Well, a few days ago the Hausfrau went to bake a loaf of bread, as she frequently does, and this time things went horribly wrong. The bread baked; and it baked; and it baked; and it was, somehow, never done. I should have known, sooner than I did, that something was not right — my inner Miss Clavell should have sat right up, pointing a finger in the air — but I did not. And so nearly two hours was that bread baking (ok, maybe 90 minutes). The house smelled wonderful, and the exterior of the loaf looked fine. But evil  was lurking within.

I admit: it wasn’t evil. It wasn’t as though we cut the bread open to find anything festering in there (thank god). But it was a sodden, heavy, wrong loaf of bread. And I was very sad, because I had used really good stuff to make that bread, and it was simply useless.

(I should, someday, attempt to whizz this stuff up into bread crumbs, I suppose. But it is so sad and wretched, even after being sliced into large wedges and dried out in the oven, that I suspect I will simply give up on it and throw it in the trash.)

It was four days after I baked that bread that I went to bake some cookies and discovered, in the process of pre-heating the oven, that things were not correct with the oven. I thought I had preheated the oven to 350°, but it was hovering around 325°. “Well, that isn’t right,” I said to myself. I re-set the oven so it would say it was at 375°; this time it got up to just under 350°. “Huh,” I said to myself. “That isn’t right, either.” I texted my husband: “The oven needs to be recalibrated,” I said to him, “I think.”

He wrote back saying, basically, “Huh?”

I baked my cookies, keeping a very close eye on them. They turned out fine. I made dinner, which also came out fine. Then in the evening, when the kitchen was officially closed for the night, I went to Google and did a search for “recalibrate oven.” My fear, of course, was that this was a task that I could not do on my own, and that I would wind up paying some big burly guy $300 for the pleasure of having him hit three buttons, go “boopboopboop” with some battery operated device, and then turn to me to say “There you go, ma’am.”

It turned out that recalibrating the oven — a phrase that I’m familiar with mostly through reading old cookbooks and household manuals — is something that current oven manuals discuss. I was, in fact, able to track down my oven’s model number and through the wonders of Google find the manual for it online. It turns out that I didn’t have to pay a big burly man anything to come go boopboopboop and no battery operated device was necessary at all. I was able to recalibrate our oven myself — well, mostly. It’s still running about five degrees cool, I think. I want to put a little more effort into getting it as correct as I can — but I can do that.

I want to assure you: I am probably the least mechanically-minded person in the world. While it’s true I’m not afraid of disassembling a vacuum cleaner to see why the suction’s all stopped up, it’s also true I’m really afraid of tinkering with computers and I certainly don’t want to mess with something that might, theoretically, explode (cf. gas ovens in my apartment). But I figured if the household manual says I can do this, then I can do it. Here’s one thing to bear in mind, when you go to recalibrate your oven: you want to have at least one, and probably ideally three oven thermometers on hand so that you can arrange them in different parts of the oven and see for yourself what the temperature(s) is(are) in the different parts of the oven. We experienced bakers get that ovens have hot spots and cool spots — but you ideally have a sense of where they are. I’ve never had this information in my head; I’m just someone who keeps a close eye on things when I’m baking, or else relies on the fact that it’s almost impossible to overcook a braised dish.

Believe it or not, I do not own three oven thermometers, but I do own two of them. (One is better than the other — easier to read.) So it was easy for me to place two of them in the oven  — one way to the left, one way to the right, one on the upper middle rack and one on the lower middle rack — and set the oven for 350° and see what would happen. What I found was that one dial moved up to 345° and the other one went to just a smidge past 350°.   If I had a third and fourth thermometer, I’d scatter them about, too, and see where they landed. My guess is that the middle of the oven is, in fact 350°, or close enough for government work anyhow, and I’m ok.

But isn’t it funny: we’ve been using this oven for five years, and I’ve never had any trouble with it, and then suddenly it’s out of whack. What happened to cause this? I have no idea. I don’t know what (other than just sheer mechanical failure of some oven part) causes an oven to go out of whack. I’ve now spent enough time reading up online about oven functioning and what I’ve decided is that a) I’m going to keep both of these thermometers in the oven and b) when I preheat the oven, I will not assume that things are ‘correct’ just because the oven display says it is so: I will wait a little longer, and check the thermometers before putting food in. If I have to preheat twice (moving the setting up or down, as needed), so be it.

On that note, I’m going to go roast some beautiful red peppers I bought the other day. Maybe I’ll make pimiento cheese this afternoon.

Housecleaning at Night. Or, When You See Schmutz, Clean Schmutz.

I’ve long wondered why it is that I tend to clean the kitchen — I mean serious deep cleaning — after dinner. It was only last night that I really figured it out. It’s because it’s only at night that I can actually see the filth.

A couple of days ago a Facebook associate asked me for housecleaning advice and I found myself engaged in a long dialogue on the subject, which basically began by saying “It’s not that you need special products or create a special system; you just have to have a system that works for you and the products needed to implement it.” She had said, “I don’t have a housecleaning schedule and I feel like everyone else does.” I said, “I don’t, with the exception of the days when I know I have to face laundry or the world will fall apart. Everything else is catch-as-catch-can.” You notice that the bathroom sink is visibly vile, grab a washcloth and clean it. The toilet can wait if you want, but do the thing that’s bugging you really fast, if you can, and get it out of the way. This is a riff on the Peg Bracken advice that you should embrace any small housecleaning urge the moment it seizes you, because the feeling will pass and then you still have the filth and that particular housecleaning urge may not visit again for a rather revolting-to-consider length of time.

A case in point is this scene from last night. I was quite tired: it was eight o’clock, and I’d cooked dinner and done the dishes and wiped down the counters and by all logic, I would be flopping on the couch and zoning out in front of the TV as any good American would. However, while I was wiping down the counter, I noticed that there was rather a lot of schmutz on the edge of the shelf where all the spices live. Looking more closely, I looked at the tops of the spice jars and boxes: they, too, were grey with schmutz. I took a handful of jars from the shelf and saw these very sharp, clear rings in the dust. Clearly, the shelf and jars needed to be wiped down.

I could have said, “Screw it, I will deal with this tomorrow.” But here’s the thing — and it came to me in a flash — I cannot, for whatever reason, see the schmutz as well in the daytime. Inexplicably, the light in the kitchen is such that I literally see the dirt better in the evening than I do in the daytime. And since it makes sense to clean when you can see what you’re cleaning, it came to pass that at 8.15 last night I was removing everything from that shelf and taking a towel and wiping down every surface. The shelf itself was cleaned, and then each jar was cleaned. Then I rearranged the stuff back onto the shelf. It took me maybe fifteen minutes all told, which isn’t very long, but on the other hand, when you’re tired and you’ve had it, fifteen minutes is a long time. However, I didn’t mind doing it because I knew that once it was done, it would be done. This is a task I only perform a few times a year — maybe twice or three times — and I felt good about knowing I’d taken care of it. The next time I will notice schmutz on the spice shelf, it will probably be mid-July, and fine: I’ll get there when I get there.

I now understand why it is that every so often, having washed the dinner dishes and wiped the counters and set up the coffee for the next morning, I will find myself washing the kitchen floor. It’s not because I think it’s a good time to wash the floor. It’s because that’s when I can see the schmutz. And it’s ok, come to think of it. At least it’s getting cleaned. Sometimes. Once in a while. This is also how my oven gets cleaned: after dinner, when I am done with the dishes and setting up the coffee and thinking, “All right things are good!” That is when I’ll notice what a shanda the oven and stovetop are — especially the glass door, why can I never really get the glass door clean? — and I’ll think, “There is no point in putting this off.” Forty-five minutes later, I will finally be satisfied with the state of things, and I’ll apply hand lotion and call it a night. It’s ridiculous. (Especially when you consider that the best way to deal with the stove burners involves an overnight-with-ammonia process that is no joke.) But look: the cleaning gets done this way. And, equally important, I get to go to sleep with a clear conscience.

Fine, I’ll wash the floor tonight, ok?

The Moebius Strip That is Our Three Bedroom Apartment: Musings Inspired by Hausfrau During February School Vacation

Prefatory statement: I began to write this on Thursday morning, when my husband and child were not in the house. It is now six days later and I am only now able to clean it up enough to post it. I have spent the morning doing laundry, cooking dinner, and cleaning up much of the mess addressed in the below essay.

My daughter had a full week of winter vacation from school. My husband decided to take some time off from work so that he could spend time with us and engage in fun family activities with our daughter. He did a splendid job of it; on Friday, they went to New York City on a fact-finding mission: Where is the Best Ice Cream in Manhattan, and Is It Better Than Ashley’s on York Street? The day before that, they went on a bird-watching adventure which lasted about an hour, culminating in their being (so I am told) nearly attacked by a hawk, which was, according to them, totally awesome.

These mama-free time frames are fun for them; they get to do things I either don’t approve of (walking around in nature) or am too lazy to do (go to New York solely to eat ice cream; I approve of this wholeheartedly, but there’s no way I’d ever do it).

Part of why I was happy to stay home on Friday, and not go to Manhattan with my loving husband and child, was that I hadn’t had much time to myself, even with all that wholesome bird-watching. We pretty much stuck around the house all week. All of us. Which is fine — I’m not known for my love of travel — but it means that my usual housework was, at the same time, increased exponentially and also made exponentially more difficult, because I lacked the usual six hour window of time in which the house is empty except for myself and the cats. Without a school/work day, it is very hard for me to get things done, or even think, in this apartment. Obviously, too, I hadn’t had a lot of time to just be in my own head without an interruption. If we went out of town, during a school vacation, there’d no time to be alone, it’s true, but it’s also true I wouldn’t have the housework weighing on me either, since we wouldn’t be at home cooking and so on. (Ok, it would weigh on me in that I’d know I’m coming home to whatever havoc the cats may have wreaked, but that’s a different kind of problem from the usual day-in-day-out of the human chaos.)

In other words: if we are all home, all of us, all the time, there is a constant rotation of activity in the kitchen, a constant rotation of laundry, a constant rotation of straightening up to do, in even greater levels than normal, because there is never a period of time in which the house is laying fallow and I can try to keep up with it a little bit. That little bit at a time — the probably two and a half hours a day when I am, really, absolutely focused on keeping the household running properly (and the rest of the time, in which I’m doing other things with half my brain and keeping the household running with the other half of a brain) — turns out to be absolutely necessary to keep the house operating at a level where we aren’t, say, eating off floors covered in random bits of paper, pieces of the Master Mind game someone sent us, and stepped-on bits of Meow Mix. To keep the house relatively orderly, it turns out, I need the house to be empty for at least five hours of the day, and this assumes I personally don’t have anything else going on.

The fact that it’s not just breakfast and dinner that have to be assembled — that lunch and snacks must also be served to three people every day — throws a spanner in the works. Normally, we run the dishwasher once every three or so days — possibly every two days, if I’ve made some particularly elaborate dinner one night. But three meals a day served, plus snacks, means the dishwasher is being run far more often. We only have so many plates and forks and spoons, after all. And the coffee cups! My husband will drink coffee all day long, and the number of cups that are generated as a result is staggering. Mostly I wonder why we have so many coffee mugs, but a few days of all three of us at home in the wintertime makes it clear that we actually need all these mugs.

Then, in wintertime, there is the likelihood of the child going out to play in the snow. This week we had snow on the ground at the beginning of the week but then we hit a warm phase. The snow turned quickly to mud. Either way — snow or mud —  it meant an increase in the amount of laundry being done, because snow pants/muddy pants and gloves/muddy sweatshirts, whatever the case may be: all of it has to be washed and dried after use.

It should be obvious, too, that the bathrooms are utilized more frequently than they are during a normal week, and so they are getting dirtier faster, and need more attention than I would normally give them.

All of this wore me down as the week passed.

One vacation morning I was scooping the cats’ litter boxes, as I normally do, around ten o’clock. (It’s something I try to do twice a day. There are two cats, and three litter boxes, and you’d think that once a day would be enough. I suppose technically it is, but the reality is, life is better for all of us if it gets done twice a day.) My daughter came downstairs for no apparent reason — just to remind me that she was alive, I think — and held her nose: STINKY!
I snapped at her, “Yes, it’s stinky. But this is something I do every day. Instead of complaining, why don’t YOU try doing it to get rid of the stink? Or just don’t complain?” She removed her hand from her nose and looked at me in surprise. “Have you ever, once, scooped the litter boxes?” She shook her head no. “Ok, then don’t complain that scooping the litter boxes is gross,” I said. I tied up the vile bag of cat excrement and brought it upstairs to add to the kitchen trash, which would shortly be brought out to the dumpster. I tried to not think about the fact that ideally, I would also be vacuuming around the litter boxes and mopping the floor around the litter boxes and laundering the old sheet that I keep under the boxes to try to limit the spread of filth in the basement. I could ask my husband to help with this chore, I suppose, but I know perfectly well that he wouldn’t do it to my satisfaction, and it’s something best left for me to do. But I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to take it on right then. (Let’s let it pass that I could be doing it instead of writing this essay; take my word for it, I need this time to write a lot more than the house needs to have that sheet shaken out and laundered.)

The challenge of “what to make for dinner” also expanded, mysteriously, during the week, possibly because it’s one thing to come up with something novel or just tasty to eat once a day; to do it twice a day is a real drain. Most nights I make dinner without complaint, and I do it after having a day to think over what I’m putting together. I’m lucky of course — as I am about so many aspects of my life as a housewife — because I’m doing this as my full-time (extra-double-plus-full-time) job; I don’t have to figure this out after being out in the world at work all day. I get that; logically, making dinner is easier for me than it is for others. But that doesn’t make the slog any less of a slog. It’s merely a different type of slog. I face the challenge in a different manner from my friends who teach all day or work as speech pathologists or in retail or whathaveyou. But it’s all labor, ok? And, frankly, since I don’t have a job, the expectation is that our house should run better than houses where the adults are not at home all the time; because, if it doesn’t, what the hell am I doing all day? (Writing; and Good Works. But that’s not enough of an excuse. So.)

The slog of making dinner: some nights are better or more ambitious than others, but the fact is, I’m able to do it, and do it reasonably well, in large part because I haven’t had to really think about breakfast (which is a bowl of cold cereal, or toast) or lunch (which is consumed by the child at school and by the husband at whichever place he decides to get lunch downtown). This is a nearly militant stance for me: I really refuse to cook breakfast and I resent assembling lunch on school days. My family by and large accepts this, and since dinner is usually good, I’m on steady ground.

However, when you have to put dinner together after also putting together breakfast, lunch, and snacks: that sucks. And dreaming up a nice dinner at the end of such a day is not easy. Because not only are food supplies looking uninspiring, or nearly non-existent, but one’s ability to get enthusiastic about making another mess in the kitchen is also drained.  I swear to God, it’s not that I look forward to cooking dinner every night, but it doesn’t normally get me down the way it did during vacation week. That week, come about 4.30 in the afternoon, my husband and child would look at me and ask, “What’s for dinner?” and there was, honestly, not one time I gave an answer that was met with glee. Something was always inadequate. I knew better than to say “I’ve been thinking about soup,” even though soup would have been the perfect thing to make with the last of the stock and short ribs I made on Monday — because if I said “soup” no one, and I mean no one, would have been happy, and then I’d’ve gotten angry, and the whole evening would be shot.

Friday, as my husband assembled some sandwiches to eat for his and our daughter’s lunches, he asked me what I would do all day, with the whole day to myself. I said, “Well, I’ve decided one thing, which is that I am not going to spend the whole day doing housework.” “Ok,” he said, not seeing why this was a big deal. I said, “I was thinking I would do some writing today, since that’s something I’ve not really been able to do for a little while now.” “That sounds good,” he said. Unspoken by me was the obvious fact that, even if I didn’t do housework in a serious and intensive way, I would still be taking care of the fundamentals. On a day when I’m “not doing housework,” I am nonetheless scooping the litter boxes, washing the breakfast dishes, taking out the recycling, and probably doing two loads of laundry.

On a day when I vowed to not do housework, I did three loads of laundry, I vacuumed the entire apartment, I tidied the kitchen table, and I made plans for an extraordinarily good Shabbat dinner. I worked on this blog post for about ninety minutes. I did housework for longer than I worked on writing this.

There was an article in the Onion a few years ago which friends always send to me every summer. The headline was “Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties in Closer Proximity to Ocean.” I always laugh a little but it’s just true. Vacations are, to me, the same thing as regular life, for the most part, just in a different place. The exception is: Unless we are staying in a hotel where meals are provided and there is maid service. Preferably, the situation is such that I somehow magically don’t have to worry about laundry at all. If this is not the case, then basically what vacation means to me is, “Everything you do on a normal day, but in triplicate.” This past week, when we did not go out of town on vacation, it wasn’t just All Household Duties, it was All Household Duties on Exponentially Larger Scales.  It was very grim. By mid-day Friday I was fried but resigned, too: I had only to get to Monday. Monday, I told myself, I will regroup. It’ll all be ok.

I decided to throw some muscle into making dinner on Friday night. I thawed the last of the really good steaks I’d stashed away in the freezer in the first week of January, and served them, cooked perfectly, with chimmichurri. The sides were asparagus, roasted Yukon gold potatoes, and panne cotto (made with broccoli rabe and not escarole). Everyone enjoyed the meal thoroughly. I thought, “I have bought myself a ton of goodwill with this meal.” So Saturday evening, when my willingness to make a real effort was running very low indeed, and my willingness to go buy any groceries at all was nil, when it came to be five and my husband asked if I had any ideas about dinner, I said with a clear conscience, “I’m making pasta e fagioli.” (In other words, soup, but thickened up with pasta.) Fortunately for my family, there was no visible sign of disappointment.

I scanned the shelves of the fridge. I took out everything I saw that involved cooked vegetables and cooked noodles. I had the last of the panne cotto; I had a tub of cooked cauliflower; I had the last of the thick beefy mess leftover from making short ribs on Monday. I had some celery and some garlic and a Parmesan rind. I got to work and at 6:30 I served pasta e fagioli to my family, who snarfed it all down and quickly went back for seconds. Everyone was happy. I sighed and thought, “I will get through this.”

We scraped through Sunday; it was a long day, but we managed. Our daughter had two swimming lessons this weekend, and I watched the pile of laundry grow larger with her towels and bathing suits thrown into the laundry basket along with muddy jackets, socks, pants, and so on. “She will go back to school on Monday,” I told myself, “And I will catch up.”

Monday morning came. My husband left for work, and I saw my daughter off to school. She had a meatloaf sandwich and some leftover roasted asparagus in her lunch bag. (Meatloaf was what we had for dinner Sunday night. Out of desperation I went to the grocery store on Sunday afternoon and, seeing that ground beef was $2.99/lb. if you bought 5 lbs. at minimum, I bought 5 1/2 pounds and brought it home. Some went to meatloaf; some is simmering on the stove as chili now; and some will become bolognese later this week. I am never, ever not thinking about home economics.) Everyone had been dispatched in the correct directions; it was up to me to go home and face the house.

I spent the morning undoing as much of the past ten days’ damage as I could. First I walked around the apartment gathering things to launder, and at the same time assessing what messes needed cleaning. It was 8.30 in the morning when I turned on the washing machine. I’ve been doing laundry; running the dishwasher; finally cleaning up the mess around the cats’ litter boxes; setting up a huge pot of beef chili; cleaning toilets; scrubbing the vinyl bath mat that always seems to grow little rings of mildew around the suction cups; bleaching the cleaning supplies that I used to clean around the cats’ boxes; straightening up the coffee table; making lists of other things that have to be done.

Soon there’s going to be a Day of No Women in the United States, a protest designed to recognize “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socioeconomic system, while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment and job insecurity.” This quote is from the Women’s March website, https://www.womensmarch.com/womensday. I didn’t just make it up.

I don’t have lower wages; I don’t have wages. I guess you could say I get room and board for the work I do, but not everyone would find that framing of the arrangement agreeable. As I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere in my life, while my life isn’t perfect, it is on the whole pretty good: we are lucky to be able to live the way we do, in the manner we do; we never want for anything we really need, and that’s because of my husband’s job, not because I’m such a genius at running the household. I’m good at running the household, and if I stopped doing it for a day, well, nothing disastrous would happen, but no one would benefit, either. Housewives don’t get vacations, and neither do housebitches — this essay is clearly in the housebitch category — and that’s part of the deal. If I stopped doing housework altogether (the way my husband stopped going to his job altogether last week), even for just a day, nothing good would happen to any of us, and we would all three of us become very cranky very quickly.

The Moebius strip that is running this household cannot be interrupted without consequences. Maybe they are not as serious as the consequences of, say, not showing up at your minimum-wage hourly job: my husband will not fire me if I don’t do laundry for a day, don’t scoop the litter box for one day, don’t cook dinner for one day. But I will only be making my own life worse if I stop paying attention to any of these details for only one day. Last week’s vacation proved it to me.