The Bath Bead Principle

Audrey Thompson

It was a mistake to admit publicly that I am messy. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but ever since I put a story on the web acknowledging frankly and candidly that I am a messy person, there has been a steady parade of uninvited visitors marching through the house, intent on seeing what genuine, unapologetic messiness looks like. One man meandered from room to room calling out, “Here, kitty, kitty.” Naturally, the cats hid. Calling out “Here, kitty, kitty” wasn’t really intended to bring the cats running; it was just a ploy to look around the house. Or if it wasn’t a ploy, it was seriously naïve. You don’t read a lot of thrillers in which Cold War spies try to flush the enemy by calling out, “Here, CIA agent, coochie, coochie, coochie, CIA agent.”

Harley hides

But, as I say, I think the guy’s real purpose was to see just how messy one house could be. It wouldn’t be so bad if I were the only messy one, but Ivan is just as messy as I am. The only real difference between us is that whereas I can see that we have a problem, Ivan claims that our level of messiness is “comfortable.” This is in spite of having to wade through piles of books and papers on the way to his chair.

Part of Ivan’s and my problem is that we have a lot of stuff. Most of my stuff takes the form of piles of papers that may contain useful information — reviews and articles torn from a decade’s worth of the Women’s Review of Books, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books, typed lecture outlines with scribbled notations, old letters, drafts of papers with changes, journal articles that I have been meaning to read but am not really in any rush to read. Most of Ivan’s stuff takes the form of books, magazines, and Lego. I have tried to get Ivan to use the library for at least some of his reading material, but he refuses. “The beauty of library books is that, when you are through reading them, you can give them back,” I point out. “That is specifically what I hate about library books,” says Ivan. “You have to give them back.”

We have some non-book and -paper stuff that we don’t absolutely need, too; every once in a while I make an effort to get rid of some of it. The other day, I offered Raegan and Glenn our ice-cream maker. It’s a very nice electric ice-cream maker that we got nineteen years ago for a wedding gift. It has never been used. “No, thank you,” said the Dykes. “We already have three ice-cream makers from our own wedding that we have never used.”

When I take photographs over at the Dykes’ house, Glenn and Raegan do what Ivan and I do with our junk on the floor, kicking it out of the way so that there will be a little oasis of neatness for the picture. The pretense of neatness is moot, however, as the girls like to have their picture taken in places like cardboard boxes that are hard to get looking really pristine.

Kanyon and Rayn in a box

The Dykes have a good excuse for sometimes having a messy house. What they have on their floor are things like stuffed animals, crayons, the socks that Kanyon and Rayn always take off, and Woody’s toys. Stuff for children and dogs. All the stuff on our floor is stuff for us. On the plus side, I can fake cleanliness in photos better than the Dykes can. Since I am the one taking the pictures, I have more lead time and can dust the immediate area beforehand. I did that with Trillin’s chair before I put catnip on it for her. Apart from the catnip, the chair is nice and clean.

Trillin sprawls

Too bad that the viewer’s eye is drawn inexorably to the surrounding floor area, which I forgot to clean.

When I plan ahead, I can take uncluttered, dust-free pictures of pink mixers or stools decorated with bluebirds, but photo opportunities that do not involve inanimate objects or catnip-induced cooperation cannot be staged in clean, wide open spaces. The picture I took of Harley squeezing herself under a footstool was one that I had to take right then, dust and all, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. She had never done it before. I was about to say that she also has never done it since, but then I found her under the stool again and had to take more pictures.

Harley hides again

Early on, the photographs we took inside the house were not staged to give the impression of museum-quality housekeeping. The house was never especially clean but then again it was never extraordinarily messy, so we took pictures of the ordinary state of affairs. Since we were using disposable cameras and were not especially good photographers anyway, you really couldn’t tell whether the house was clean or not. You could tell that there was a lot of stuff in it and that there were cats, but that pretty much summed things up, as far as hard evidence went.

Ketzela in the kitchen
Ketzela in the kitchen
Ketzela and Trillin
Ketzela and Trillin
Ivan and Lego®
Ivan and Lego®

Now that we have simultaneously gotten much dustier and messier and bought a digital camera, we face demanding new circumstances. We are forced to clean for the camera. It is a lot of work. One option is to keep the house clean all the time. Another option is to do piecemeal cleaning and put together an album of photographs of clean patches in the house. Annette was the one who gave us the second idea.

Annette had heard a lot about Ivan’s Lego train layout and when she came to visit last summer she asked if she could see it. “No,” we said, “that room is too messy. Here, we will show you a photo that we took of it when it was tidy.” Annette did not seem to find it unusual to be shown photos of the Lego empire rather than the real thing, even though she was in the very same house with it. She seemed content to admire the Lego in our photos. Either she had already been warned about Ivan and me or she had been hanging around philosophers. Philosophers seldom prefer reality over photos. There is a philosophical joke in which one man says to another man, “Your daughter is adorable” and the father says, “That’s nothing. You should see her picture!” It is a philosophical joke because it is not very funny and it has a point. The point is that philosophers tend to think that the idea of a thing — or in this case, a picture of it — is preferable to the reality because, unlike reality, the abstract idea is not all cluttered up with stuff that detracts from its essential qualities. Likewise, Ivan and I prefer to show people photos of our house rather than the real thing because the photos are not all cluttered up with, well, clutter.

We are thinking of taking photos of all the rooms when they are clean, therefore, and making a special photo album for guests. “Can we see your house?” the guests will say. “Yes,” we will say. “Here is a photo of the kitchen taken on a nice spring day. Isn’t it colorful? On the next page you will see a particularly good photo of the dining-room floor, freshly mopped. Notice that even the quarter rounds have been dusted. We are very proud of that picture.” Unfortunately, we cannot count on all of our friends being satisfied with a virtual tour. Frank is one of the people that we cannot fob off with photos, even though he is a philosopher. He is like a cat. He does not believe in closed doors. He always opens any door that is closed. For someone who claims not to care about data, he sure collects a lot of it, none of it to my credit. The one good thing is that Frank does not believe in taking photographs. It is almost like a religion with him.

Cleaning for the camera is not real cleaning, I admit. I am an admirer of real cleaning, but it takes a lot of time and organization and commitment and willingness to give up papers that you might someday need. I once read about a woman who only spent ten minutes a day cleaning each room. “What a good idea!” I thought. Then I saw that she still spent two hours every day cleaning her house. I did not think that this was a good idea. Also, it would take me ten minutes to look through each piece of paper that I am considering throwing away. In the two hours that it takes that woman to clean her house, I would have thrown away twelve pieces of paper. Or not. Depending on whether they turned out to be valuable.

When you are staging photos, all you have to clean is the immediate area. Real cleaning involves cleaning outside the frame. It is more thorough. Thoroughness is good. The idea of thoroughness is so seductive, though, that you may start to focus on stuff that in principle detracts from uncluttered perfection, but is not really the main thing standing between you and a clean house. My sister refers to this as the bath bead principle.

The bath bead principle works like this: you are trying to do an at least adequate job of straightening and cleaning the house for company so that guests will not arrive to find you still trying to scrub away the remains of the pie that exploded in the oven last week. When you start to clean out the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, you notice that there is one bath bead remaining in the jar that the kids gave you for Mother’s Day last year. Caught up in the fantasy of museum-quality cleanliness, you realize that your most pressing commitment is to use up this one last bath bead, because you don’t want to waste it, but then you also don’t want the whole jar just sitting there, taking up space, with only one bath bead in it. So you stop everything in order to take a bath, thereby legitimately using up the last bath bead. There is a question of diminishing returns here. In using up the last bath bead, you have made progress. That spot on the medicine cabinet shelf is now pristinely — and legitimately, without any waste of bath beads — clear of clutter. On the other hand, you no longer have a clean tub, you have not started dinner, you have not cleared the children’s toys out of the living room or taken your stained glass project off the dining-room table, you have not cleaned anything else in the bathroom, and you still haven’t taken care of that oven. You have made progress, in short, but it is not what you might call highly significant progress.

What you need, therefore, is a plan for exactly the level of cleanliness to which you will aspire. My nephew has elaborated just such a plan. It has its own technical terms, which make the ideas more scientific.

I learned about the scientific levels of cleanliness several years ago, when I was staying with Tom and Annika while their parents were in Hawaii. The night before Barb and Joe got back, I made Tom and Annika clean their rooms. Although there had been no room cleaning for the ten or eleven days that their parents were gone, I thought it important to instill the value of maintaining false appearances by making it look to their parents as if the rooms had been clean all along. Annika did what I always do: she collapsed helplessly in the face of the chaos she had constructed for herself. Tom, on the other hand, took a very can-do attitude, briskly inquiring as to what level of tidiness I wanted him to aim for: “firstiary, secondiary, thirdiary, fourthdiary, fifthdiary, sixthdiary. . . . It goes all the way up to twentiethdiary,” he told me.

“What level do your Mom and Dad usually ask for?” I inquired. “Secondiary,” he said. “We’ve never gone higher than thirdiary. Firstiary is where you just kind of group all the stuff together and get it out of the way so you can walk; secondiary is where you pick things up and put them in boxes, but you don’t break up the Lego sets that are important and that you want to play with.” “Let me get this straight,” I said. “Firstiary is where you kick all the Lego on the floor into piles and shove what you can under the bed; secondiary is where you actually put some of it away, but not all. Is that right?” He said it was, and that his parents were always perfectly happy with secondiary, so we went with that plan.

When I came back to check on his progress, piles of books were everywhere and there was Lego all over the floor. I raised some concerns as to whether the terms of secondiary picking-up had been met. With all the appearance of being willing to do my least bidding if this was what I truly wanted, Tom asked me earnestly, “Would you rather I did a thirdiary-level cleaning? This is a secondiary-level cleaning. But I can do a thirdiary-level cleaning. If I do that, then I pull everything back out of all the boxes that I put it in, and organize everything, and put everything away again. Would you rather I did that?” If that was a thirdiary, it occurred to me to wonder what a twentiethdiary would look like, but I decided not to ask. It was more than possible that the levels beyond thirdiary were imaginary levels for obsessive-compulsive parents and aunts to locate themselves on, so that if an adult asked, say, for any vacuuming to be done, she could be gently recalled to reality with, “Oh, you want a seventeenthdiary?”

I persuaded Tom to pick up the books and to move a very small selection of Lego, but when I recommended that the magazines stacked on top of the books in the bookcase be moved to a pile of their own in the closet, I was informed that this would not be possible, as the magazines were stacked in the exact order in which they had arrived. “Well, pick up the whole stack and move the whole stack to the closet, and then it will still be in the same order,” I said. “No, I can’t,” Tom explained. “It has to stay exactly where it is.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I use the method of nature,” Tom said. Taken aback, I tried to figure out how Rousseau’s method of nature applied to the stacking of magazines. “What is the method of nature?” I finally asked. “The method of nature,” Tom told me, “is where you leave all the magazines exactly where they are, and when new Lego magazines arrive in the mail, you put them on top of the stack, and then, over the years, you see what the stack looks like. If you move the stack, it won’t be natural anymore.” Sort of like moving dinosaur bones from the place they were found: most unscientific.

I told Ivan about the cleaning levels and he was impressed. Later, when I was back at home and had impulsively invited people over to a messy house, I moaned, “How are we going to get this place clean before they come? It’s a wreck.” “All we have time for is a firstiary,” Ivan replied briskly. “Just kick all the Lego under the couch.”

It is not entirely our fault that we are messy. One reason that Ivan and I have such a lot of stuff is that people send us so much. Chuck has a favorite photograph that he sends me at least once a week. Joe took the picture and Chuck improved upon it. He likes it so much that he sends me perpetual copies.

Perpetuum Mobile

Three times a month, my mother also sends me a black and white photocopy of a color photograph of me with my grandmother. She sends extras to other relatives, who then mail them to me. It is hard to get rid of stuff in any definitive way when your family keeps sending you everything in triplicate.

MomMom and Audrey
Audrey and MomMom

One possible solution to messiness is not to acquire so much stuff in the first place. This is my brother’s solution. Dave has a different solution. It is worthy of my brother; I don’t know why he didn’t think of it himself.

At night, Dave says, it is very relaxing to lie in bed and go through catalogues. Sometimes they are the same exact catalogue that he has been looking through for the past month; sometimes they are new issues of the same catalogue. Naturally, the new catalogues tend to have the same pictures in them as the previous versions did. After a while things start to look very familiar and Dave finds himself thinking, “Yes, I have that. Oh, I like that! Wait, I already have that. Good. What else do I need?” Persuading himself that he owns things that he does not, he can feel considerable satisfaction in virtual ownership.

The only thing he needs to actually have more of in his life, Dave pointed out to me, is catalogues. He said this rather significantly. I am the one who is supposed to supply him with the catalogues and I have not been doing my part lately; I have these mild fits of unmessiness prompting me to recycle the catalogues as soon as they arrive. Recycling the catalogues doesn’t really have any noticeable effect on the general disorder, but it makes me feel a little better. I explained that to Dave, but he was not interested in my needs. “I need those catalogues,” he reminded me. “How am I supposed to sleep at night?” He went on in this vein for quite some time, pulling no punches in the effort to make me feel guilty.

“I don’t suppose you’re Catholic,” I said.

“Yes!” said Marty admiringly. “He is! How did you know?”

“The guilt — he’s very practiced,” I observed. To tell the truth, I have never understood why Catholics claim to have a monopoly on guilt. When we were in Paris together during our study year abroad, Rose and Dori and I compared notes. Rose was raised Catholic and Dori was raised Jewish; I was raised skiing-Presbyterian, which meant that my family belonged to a Presbyterian church but we did not attend it; we went skiing instead. It turned out that Dori, Rose, and I had pretty much the same pervasive sense of guilt. We each attributed it to our religion, although this was not very plausible in my case. Nevertheless, the fact that we had the same pervasive sense of guilt seemed to me to indicate that no religion can really claim guilt for its very own. Georgia and Mike assure me that guilt is Catholic, however.

When I brought up the guilt issue, Dave was outraged. “Guilt!” he said. “I don’t feel guilty at all.”

“No, you don’t feel guilty. You are trying to make me feel guilty,” I explained.

“Oh, that guilt,” he said. “Yes. I hope it is working, too, because I need those catalogues. Did I mention that I have been having a hard time getting to sleep lately? I really need my sleep.”

Dave and Marty
Dave and Marty not getting any sleep

From time to time, Ivan and I go out to get more stuff. Once when Joe was visiting, Ivan said, “Let’s take Joe to the second-hand store.” “This is a good idea,” said Joe, as he watched Ivan accumulate things, “shopping for ’stuff.’ I suppose you guys can always use more stuff.” There was a touch of irony in his tone, but Ivan ignored it.

“Yes,” said Ivan. “I have lived with stuff and without stuff. With is better.” Ivan is a Buddhist, but not exactly a Buddhist poster child. He is very attached to stuff. Salt Lake is bracing for Buddhists. The grocery stores around here do not believe in having the same stuff two months running, so just when Ivan gets attached to a brand of vegetarian chili, the stores get rid of it forever. You have to learn to let go.

Despite the inherent value in having a lot of stuff, I was able to persuade Ivan that we only needed one of our two brand-new, never-used mixers. He was amenable. “I will keep the tangerine one,” he said. “Barb can have the pink one. It will go with her pink and turquoise 1950s kitchen.”

I called Barb to ask if she wanted a brand-new, never-used pink mixer. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I would love that mixer!” Later she showed Annika an ad for the mixer, saying, “Do you see that pink mixer? Audrey and Ivan are giving me one exactly like that!”

“That’s great,” said Annika encouragingly. “Does it work?” she asked. Not all of Barb’s pink and turquoise kitchen appliances work. She prefers for them to work, but she does not consider it an absolute necessity. Joe considers it a necessity; Barb considers it a bonus.

It had not occurred to me that a brand-new pink mixer might not work. I set out to test drive it. Trillin supervised.

Audrey and Trillin and the Mixer Audrey and Trillin and the Mixer
Audrey and Trillin and the Mixer Audrey and Trillin and the Mixer

It worked just fine. So did my grandmother’s wooden mixing fork. When I used the mixing fork, Trillin lost interest. She is more your high tech type.

Audrey and Trillin and the Mixer

The trouble with cooking is that you have to clean up afterwards. We used to know a woman who had decided that either you could have books or you could cook. Mrs. Houseworth decided to have books. Actually, they were not for her; she sold them to buy equipment for the hospital where her husband was a doctor. Ivan went to her house once to buy some books; there was a treacherously narrow path from the front door to the kitchen where she kept the science fiction books. All the walls were lined floor to ceiling with stacks of books. In the kitchen, the entire table and all the chairs were heaped with books. The cabinets had books in them instead of pans and dishes. The stove was covered with books. Both sides of the double sink were filled with books. “What do you do about food?” Ivan asked. “We eat out a lot,” said Mrs. Houseworth.

Compared with books in the kitchen sink, our house looks pretty normal. Messy, but normal. For a while, I thought I had found a good excuse for the messiness. The newspaper had mentioned that Salt Lake City lies on an earthquake fault line. Without structural protection, all the buildings will crumble to dust when an earthquake strikes. Our house does not have structural earthquake protection. If the whole thing was going to dissolve into a pile dust anyhow, I realized, it was pointless for us to clean house. I tried to get Tom Fassio to support me in this decision. He is a geologist; I figured he would see my point. Tom said that the next earthquake will be in about two thousand years. Reluctantly, Ivan and I were forced to take up housekeeping again, but we do it intermittently — just in case.

I want to point out that it is only the house that is messy, not my person. As a person, I am scrupulously neat and clean. Only today, we had prizes for “most clean member of the household,” and I was runner-up. In the process of getting clean, moreover, I used up one of those tiny shampoo bottles that hotels give you and the last scrap of a bar of soap. So we are already that much closer to having an immaculate house. When we get to that point, I’ll take pictures and you can see for yourself.


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