The Paper Chase


Housework is the enemy. Whatever the opposite of a hobby is called, that is housework to me. It brings me no joy. I want to like it, but that’s not happening. Some people, like my friend Annie, clean all the time. I don’t understand that kind of weirdness, but I’d love to hire her. She used to mop her floors every day. Every day.

“I want to be like you when I grow up,” I told her.

“Trust me,” she answered, “you don’t. It’s not fun.” Now that she’s a recovering clean freak, she does her floors only twice a week. For me, twice a month would be a miraculous improvement. Flash would walk out the front door and look at the house number, to make sure he was in the right house.

Sometimes I’m forced to clean by the guilt of seeing Flash mow the lawn in lava-hot weather. I complete all “must-do” tasks first, like dishes and laundry and dusting, so I will run out of time for cleaning floors. Floors are at the bottom of the chore chain. Mopping makes my delicate back hurt, and vacuuming is disgusting since we bought a bagless vacuum at Flash’s insistence.

I hear the “clink, clink, clink” of dirt as it’s sucked up, smell the lovely aroma of dog-created hairballs burning, and see the filth that I was previously oblivious to, in the clear canister attached to the vacuum. I draw the line at emptying the canister and possibly inhaling debris. I’d rather clean out hairballs from the drains, which works out well since that job makes Flash flee from the scene to avoid throwing up. Being the hottest couple in North America, we struck up a romantic conversation last week regarding drain hair. It's that kind of pillow talk, of torrid passion, that keeps my heart burning for my beloved.

"It makes me sick to pull that hair out," he began, as he drove us to the movies.

I have no recollection of what led to the subject. What could possibly lead to that?

Then he clasped his hand over his mouth as he drove.

"Are you okay? Do you need me to drive?" I asked.

"No, we just need to quit talking about it," he said as his gag reflex kicked in.

"Are you serious? You brought it up.”

"I wish I hadn’t. I’m going to throw up.”

“So, you don’t want to talk about the little things stuck in the drain hair that look like bugs?”

Seriously. I may be pulling off the road any minute."

For the sake of my own safety, I quickly dropped the subject. I will forevermore be the Keeper of the Drains. Perhaps, dear reader, you’ve never thought about drain hair. Perhaps you are nauseous, thinking about mine, sure that you have none. But it’s there, lurking in the dark recesses of your tub or bathroom sink.

“You’re like your grandmother,” Mom told me when I still lived at home. “You don’t recognize dirt around the house.” I felt better about myself. It’s not my fault; I was born with dirt-blindness.

But what I do notice is clutter. Every day. In every room.

Mom also explained my clutter problem, “You really don’t have a place for everything because your house is so small.” What a nice thing to say; I was let off the hook because of my home’s square footage. It sounded like a plausible explanation.

Don’t judge me; we all have our dirty little secrets. When visiting my friend Evie one day, I noticed her spotless house; it looked like that every time I was there.

“How do you keep it tidy all the time?” I was dying to know her secret.

"Come with me," she answered with a sly look. She took me to her bedroom closet and opened the door. Everything imaginable was in one place, and I wondered if I’d found Big Foot’s habitat. It was truly a spectacle to behold. A wave of relief swept over me as I suddenly felt better about my life.

“And I put the dirty dishes in the bathtub one time when company was coming over,” she added. She’s magnificently “real” and one of my heroes.

Maybe I could keep clutter at bay if it weren’t ambulatory. Like an amoeba, it travels throughout my house as the ultimate shape-shifter, appearing as shoes, paper clips, scotch tape, Liquid Paper, unused dust rags, books, dog toys, and more.

So I’ll give you my secret to being a great housekeeper: I put a few things away, in their appropriate places, 10 minutes before Flash gets home. If I’ve been lazy or all my chores were invisible that day, such as paying bills or doing the budget, I put all shoes back into their closets, have Cowboy move his backpack from the hearth to his room, straighten blankets in the living room, put away the ironing board, and close the roll-top desk. I recently learned that Aunt Joann used similar methods before Uncle George got home from work, way back in the day. My genius is hereditary.

To impress my husband even more, I start boiling water on the stove to suggest I’ve started preparing dinner. Like a child wetting his toothbrush to make you think he brushed his teeth, I am a master illusionist.

But my clever housekeeping methods are no match for my ever-growing plutter, paper clutter. It’s impossible to tame. Plutter starts with one little yellow sticky note on the kitchen counter by the phone. Slowly, it drifts to the counter by the microwave. Opened mail. Unopened mail. School papers. Coupons. Sticky notes in every color of the rainbow. Millions of to-do lists. When my back is turned, four more piles have migrated onto the dining room table. We haven’t eaten there since 1999.

Plutter quickly spreads to every horizontal surface and into various containers throughout the house. We have three large desks, two filing cabinets, four filing boxes, a closet shelf for reams of Cowboy’s school and therapy papers, and a cardboard box for “Things I Should File Throughout the Year But Never Will Because Life is Too Short.”

Last December, I stapled together 249 pages of old tax returns to make a Christmas tree. But I lost the Christmas spirit when Flash noticed a couple of deductions we had missed last year.

A PODS storage container sits in our driveway, housing a collection of Cowboy’s school assignments I’ve saved as keepsakes for the last 15 years. And I could wallpaper the Boeing Everett Factory in Washington state, a building with 4.3 million square footage, with all of the forms and agreements and notes from meetings on behalf of Cowboy’s special needs. When he leaves the public school system one day, I will build the world’s largest bonfire with them.

I have 17 bags of “Things to Be Shredded on Some Undetermined Day in the Future.” Flash brought a new shredder home last week with hopes of our slaying the plutter dragon. I don’t have the heart to tell him it’s a lost cause.

But I persevere. When company is coming or I get sick of it all, which is at least once a week, I combine and purge the piles as much as possible. It’s therapeutic. And I’m doing my part for the earth; half the paper ever made in North America is in my garage, ready to be recycled.

I’ve decided to make the best of a tough situation. With the other half of this continent’s paper supply, I’m finally adding on the extra room we’ve wanted to build for 20 years. It will be a little drafty, and somewhat of a fire hazard, but we can add extra insulation anytime with all the mail offers we get to trade in our car or the millions of grocery store ads or the political ads galore. Life will be easier. Phone messages and to-do lists will consist of handwriting on the walls, and there will always be more plutter to tack up for new messages. It could be the wave of the future for plutter-bugs everywhere. Remember, you heard it here first. You are welcome.