Clean is an idea, a concept.  In practice though, what is clean?  To be more specific, how can two small people make such huge messes?  I have given up on my husband.  He cleans when he gets irritated, and usually goes a little bananas on the laundry and his studio.  But in daily life, I have given up hoping the ten feet from the table to the kitchen sink would ever become a worn path from people-especially husband- getting dishes to the sink.

It’s the necessity every day, often more than once, of having to sweep under and around the table that amazes me.  There is a direct correlation between how messy the floor around the table is and how messy the top of the table appears.  Two people shorter than I am, who weigh at least half as much, but the messes they can create in very short spans of time are shocking.  Can they use utensils?  Yes they can.  Can they use napkins?  Yes, yes they can.  Then why is it after a simple cereal breakfast it looks like Tony the Tiger got in a cage match with the Natures Organics lady while trying to sell product?

After seven years of male kids, I have acclimated to the Legos- I don’t like it, I still complain, even rage when I get one into the arch of my foot.  But acceptance is the first step, right?  The Legos will never fully be cleaned up.  Ever.  Nor will they stay cleaned up, once a pick-up blitz has occurred.  Legos will always litter my house.  As long as they do not get into the sink or toilet drains, as long as they do not get lodged in a child’s throat, as long as the insinkerator does not chop them up, the dishwasher melt them, or the lawn mower make them into shrapnel, I am good.  Time teaches us things you see.

I have accepted after six years of DIY home renovation that it will not ever be completely finished.  I accept my responsibility in this- is the wallpaper fully removed from the stairwell?  No it is not.  Are the corners under each step swept?  No.  Are there continual piles of papers (and I know what is in each one of them so no one dares move them) on the piano, and on the guest bed (which is ostensibly in my “office” work space?)?  Are there piles of fabric for long ago conceived projects pushing the closet doors open in my office, calling to me?  Yes.

But then, will the last of the floor trim ever be fixed and put back in place?   Will the ceiling ever be complete?  Oh the drama.  Peyton Place never had such questions!  Because in TV Land, everything is clean.

I had a friend once tell me (also a mom) that there is a distinct difference between clean and unhygienic that people do not truly understand until they have children.  I was mortified when Husband recently pointed out the old crusty vomit flecks at the base of the pantry door (which is usually hidden by the bedroom door that opens in front of it), I would have cleaned it with all the rest of the incident months ago had I seen the splatter (Tiny people also have a way of producing copious projectile vomit that can not be believed until you have kids).  THAT was unhygienic, and I cleaned it after he told me.  Sweatshirts of all sizes littering the floor?  Just messy.  Par for the course.  Toys everywhere?  Standard daily life.  The compost bowl buzzing with fruit flies?  Unhygienic- why? The child responsible for the daily task slacking off, and the Husband who borrowed my stainless steel compost pot (an ingenious reworking of a salvaged food service piece and an old Pyrex lid that fit it perfectly) not returning it. 

But I have to ask, why does the first floor bathroom ALWAYS have to smell like the monkey house at the zoo?  I grew up believing that being male was such a urinary advantage- the whole standing up, no need to fully undress one’s lower half thing especially.  But as a parent, I wonder why they can’t aim properly.  And yes, the mess annoys me on many levels, especially hygiene related.

Clothes will be wrinkled; and as my children are still under 12, I will put clothes away.  But can’t they get the ones off their bodies down the steps at least NEAR the laundry room?  Smelling worn clothes thrown together with clean- that is always a risky prospect, as any parent will tell you.  Clothes left in summer camp bags, under beds, or in gym bags- that is down right haz mat territory.

So when a dear friend (who has been single all his life, and who not only has impeccable taste but feels he requires a cleaning lady at least once a week- and what for still stymies me) comes to visit and is more than a little unnerved by all the mess; he judiciously wonders about the definition of clean as it applies to us.  He admits his comfort level is somewhere, oh light years away from ours.  He also has never been married, or had children.  ‘Nuff said.

Do I get nervous when we have people over?  A little.  We laugh with self-deprecation and try to make explicit our embarrassment at the unfinished construction and daily mess.  Most people with children nod and laugh too, some share anecdotes about the height of the dirty laundry piles hidden in the basement, or the unidentified crud on a spoon from a dishwasher going on the fritz.  Most shake their heads over toys, and admit to just “closing the door” on their children’s rooms.  We all know we have battles to pick; we have check mark boards, we have reward tiles, we have poker chips as cash.  We have designated family cleaning time every week (our is Saturday AM until the boys get into weekend sports), and know what can be accomplished and what cannot in that span of time.

Are we clean?  Sometimes.  Are we dirty?  I would not say so, but that is a whole other rant I think.  Is there a continuum of clean that we have to manage and know intimately in order to function?  Yes.  Survive, even, I will say- your blood pressure and sanity depends upon it.  In sum dear reader, nothing is simple- not even the definition of clean.   Life has taught me that, and life will go on even if robot origami, a handful of Legos, spilled salt, and returned homework are still on the table tomorrow morning.  Yes, life will go on.

Heroes and leadership

Is it embarrassing to have an epiphany at such an age (all I’ll admit to is being somewhere under 50)?  I have groused for years about the lack of a youth movement in this country, and the tech-centered protests that pass for youth movements in the rest of the world.  But I have also been grousing about what passes for leadership.  When one is young, it is good to have heroes.  People who set the bar, provide examples.  As we age, we revisit these heroes, see their weaknesses, and hopefully mature enough to forgive them their faults and let them be human again.  Maybe we even learn to forgive ourselves our weaknesses, and with good humor realize what we are both capable of in extraordinary times, but more importantly how we operate in practice (not theory) on a daily basis.  Hopefully it humanizes us, makes us more tolerant, and less prone to the black and white simplicity of youth; which is appropriate for that time, it mobilizes energy and focus much more easily than a deep appreciation of the absurd and complex, which usually involves depression when one begins that journey- once out the other side though, it seasons us into adults.  We choose our battles more carefully, and have an overt need to balance personal responsibilities and our public selves.  But are we any less needful of heroes?

I know I have been mourning the loss of Studs Terkel again.  It seems to be a cyclic event for me.  I have humanized him in my mind a long time ago, and I am grateful for his constant self deprecation lest anyone make a hero of him.  Maybe it is the very definition of “hero” that has changed.  The media loves to toss about that word, to sell fathers day cards, to memorialize anyone who ever wore a uniform, you know the patter.  But I do not appreciate such flip use of the word.  Studs is still a hero to me BECAUSE he is human, because the definition is less a monolithic sculpture to perfection than a survivor of life with great soul, panache, energy, social contribution, and goodness.  Not perfection, but a consistent example of humanity I choose to admire, warts and all.

As an adult, a hero comes with difficulty.  I can’t say my parents are heroes anymore, as I did as a child.  It is not that I don’t love them- in fact, I love them more now for knowing them as an adult.  It is something else- the lack of intimacy?  The distance needed to have a hero or heroine?  I am still not sure.  It is in some part because I am not dead, or as Bill Maher recently said about turning 50, you have a lot left you can still do.  Some of the choices they made I do not wish to make, and I want to live long, healthy and as vibrantly as possible.  So I look for people who did, and see how they weathered life, what choices they made, practices they engaged in, and re-evaluate what they achieved and what I want to achieve.  I do not think leaders evolve out of a vacuum, and certainly not a vacuum that encourages a lack of self reflection.  Those people are not leaders, they are props- set up to some useful end by others and easily  manipulated.  We have an abundance of those people in roles leaders should have right now, in public and private arenas.  Leadership is hard- because if one is not to be the willfully ignorant prop of others, then one must make choices about one self, actions, and information.  One must be compassionate (active) not simply empathetic and sympathetic (passive).  One must choose good advisors, and develop complex perspective on issues of responsibility.  School board member or senator, local gadfly writer or Washington Post journalist, the leadership qualities needed are still the same, and only vary by degree.

This begs the question:  are all heroes leaders?  I don’t think so.  The heroes we choose as adults are usually not the ones set up by the media, although an uneasy venn diagram may exist between the two. We might also say our heroes and heroines are leaders in a particular way, that I’ll buy.  But an adult hero is so personal, so chosen, that perhaps they do not need to also be recognized as a leader.  But I think it is useful if they are- it helps us gain courage and example for the kinds of leadership we expect of ourselves, or certainly should expect for ourselves.  Remember, that leadership expectation is a matter of degree not kind.

I still admire Studs, and his wife.  They lived long and well, and in the process made contributions both small and large to our collective social lives.  I will never be as accomplished, but may I stay true to my path.  That is my wish, and why- I suppose – I still need my heroes.  So this fifth-grade essay is complete-  maybe we all need to write on the topic once a decade, as a self check on who we know ourselves to be and who we want to be in the future.  If you do not know of Studs, here is a great link to watch him at about 95 years of age (and several more interviews with and by him are avail. free on the net):

“For Studs, there was not a voice that should not be heard, a story that could not be told,” (Gary T. Johnson), “He believed that everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say. He was there to listen, to chronicle, and to make sure their stories are remembered.”

And to laugh; always with perspective, good humor, and the deepest of good will.  If you have not read his collection of interviews in “Hope Dies Last”, do.  RIP Studs.