Writing and Housekeeping

I have a confession to make.  I was one of those insane mothers who try to make sure their kids never come in contact with a particle of dirt.  This meant about half of everyday, usually while the babies were asleep, was spent scrubbing floors and moving furniture to vacuum behind.  On a rough estimate, that probably cost me a good 10 or so books by the age of 35.  It was probably — oh, heck, surely — excessive.

Kids who came to play with my kids, even well into elementary, used to say things like “Your house is so clean.”

Then we moved to this house.  I’ve talked about before how this house seems to have a cloud of dolce far niente over it.  Which could be very nice, if we had maids and stuff (or staff.)

However, in retrospect I’m not even sure that’s true.  I mean, that there is a cloud of dolce far niente over the house.

What happened is that we moved here in 03, when I’d been informed my first series hadn’t done “as well as expected” (which, speaking of pure evil and Random Penguins is funny considering within two years I’d outearned the advance for both number one and number two.  Since the advance back then were an estimation of what the book would make the author, saying books that earned royalties over the advance didn’t do as well as expected is duck speak.  The translation is actually this “You earned more than we expected you to, given the crappy non-support and publicity we gave you – but you didn’t become a miraculous bestseller, so we’re dropping you.”)

Anyway, because burning the publishing district was not an option even if it would have made me feel much better, and because I’m a human wave AUTHOR – meaning I behave like a human wave character – I said “like h*ll you’ll fire me.* and spent the next couple of years furiously running just to stay in print.  The running included writing a lot of proposals, halves of some novels (that will now get finished) and apparently an entire medieval romance I have no memory of writing and I’m afraid of reading.  There was also a couple of stints in work for hire and ghosting.  I will not lie – I would have quit writing – probably – sometime in the next two years when things weren’t BREAKING except that we were paying double mortgage, as we were still getting the other house ready to sell, then selling it.  So, I needed money for the double mortgage, which included a year where I made 5k from short stories.  (Do the math at around $300 each story.)

Because all my free time, I was working on the house in Manitou, to get it ready for sale, I wasn’t unpacking/cleaning.  I did the minimal unpacking to get the house functional but that was all.

Then we had the year of crisis with middle school and Number Two Son.

At the end of that, a certain pattern of living in this house had set in.  And unfortunately it wasn’t a very GOOD pattern.

I cleaned every week because I’m allergic to household dust, but furniture didn’t get moved, you didn’t look in drawers (except I organize my closet twice a year, otherwise I can’t find clothes) stuff just got piled in closets and the attic remained a disaster area.

And then I started getting ill – a lot – which meant fewer books got written and the cleaning was even more neglected.

Well… there is a possibility we will have to move in the next year or so – and it would be sane to downsize if/when the boys leave.  (Though the advantage of this house for the times we live in is that it can easily fit two families.  – three would be a bit cramped.)

So I started, desultorily, going through stuff, since the first order of business is “cull crap” – mostly paper books, since we now have a lot of them in electronic format, which thank G-d can’t collect dust.

And I’ve found that maybe the problem is not with the house, but with ourselves.  I.e., we took so long to get settled/get things started here, that by the time we did the clutter was well-night hopeless.  After five years the accumulation of dust in places I couldn’t reach without major reorganization started making me ill more often, and besides we were spending money to buy things we already had because we couldn’t find anything.  (Look, there might be a logical reason to have a collection of drill bits in my desk drawer of my writing desk.  Perhaps a character had told me she wanted to get drilled, who knows?  BUT when I needed those drill bits to fix the kitchen stool… well… I never thought to look there.  There were also two visa gift cards for the kids, given to us around the time we moved, which ended up at the back of my bedside table drawer, behind my weight in pens and about ten thousand hair clips.)

Now, I’m not going to tell you that I’m about to become the world’s best housekeeper.  I think my fans would rather I do three or four more books a year.  And G-d knows this is the last thing I wanted to be doing right now.  (And I have to do guest blogging today and tomorrow.  I just do.)  But those who have engaged in this type of work – possibly not as epic – will understand what I mean when I say that having lifted a corner of the mess, I now must continue until it’s done.

A lot of this, really, is “moving in” and making this house functional to live in, as it never was.  Depending on whether or not it looks like re: staying or having to move, there might be wall painting this summer.  But for now, it’s just getting rid of furniture we don’t need.  Getting rid of stuff we no longer use (though the hair clips are a kludge.  I used them when I had hair so long I could – and did, by accident – sit on it.  Now I have it somewhere above my shoulders, so I don’t have that much use for … fifty different ways to confine my hair.  I don’t intend to grow my hair that long again – but then I never did, I just forgot to have it cut.  That’s what the first four years in this house were like.  I don’t have anywhere to store them, and no clue what to do with them.)

Now, I think I’m about at the point that I can relegate this to weekends – I.e. do my usual lick and promise in the normal areas, but add one room that gets unpacked/organized/decluttered.  Which is good.  It means I can go back to doing the stuff all of us enjoy more.

The idea is that if I do this for a couple of months, then it will be easier to maintain the house and keep from getting sick, and finally fight off the lassitude of “I can’t find anything and why bother.  At least that’s the idea.

However – right now – remember it’s been ten years of my not doing this, it means both the kids and the cats seem to think I’ve been possessed by a cleaning demon which has now spread to Dan who spent yesterday organizing his office, as the kids looked in horror.

Bear with me through late postings and such.  This is health related, though not in the normal way.  (For one, since there was mildew in the humidifier, I need to clean any place stuff might grow in the rest of the house.)

And I’m just trying to make time for the writing.


74 responses to “Writing and Housekeeping

  1. Why not just bleg for cleaning help? I bet some of your fans in your area would be happy to come over to clean in exchange for a peek at some of the upcoming books. 😉

  2. When I was a sprout and it was made known to me that Parental Authority decreed I clean my room, I would dump EVERYTHING on my bed. Thus requiring me to put all the mess away before I could go to sleep. Worked!

    In your case, I would have someone hide the car keys in the room to be straightened up 😉 Or some Suchard Chocolate.

  3. I have been officially dejunking for three or four years. With a PAID assistant (I have CFS – I need it). And there is STILL so much junk I can barely walk through my own house!

    Best wishes – do you know of someone who will move into your house for a while, and leave everything done?

    Last night, instead of getting ready for a trip, I cleaned out my email inbox: over 1000 UNREAD emails, and about double that in read emails. I feel better today – but I literally couldn’t stop until the last one was done (and it was 4am). Sigh. I will pay for this – not a great way to start a trip, physically, but it sure took a load off my mind (and most of the bills got paid).

    You have my sympathies – please, take them – they are cluttering up the house.

    • I’ve been feeling very ill physically. Not respiratory or I wouldn’t be doing this, and yes, tests next week — but anyway, the problem is like yesterday I ran out of spoons when I’d just put all the clutter in the hallway and couldn’t (literally couldn’t) find the strength to take it downstairs.

  4. I have a friend who’s asthmatic, and a mother (which is sort of relevant). Years ago, when her kid 1 was young, and they were still renting, she spent some time in an apartment with wood floors (not wall-to-wall carpeting), and good air flow. And it turned out to be life-changing for her, because she could actually BREATHE again. See, she’d been busy being mother, etc., and hadn’t really been paying attention….

    Personally, I also get the issues with things that got too big over time (peeks guiltily at overflowing books and papers).

    All of which is a long way to saying I cheer your efforts on. With pom-poms. And everything.

  5. Do what you’ve got to do.

    We’ll be here when you have time.

    Not sure if that last is a comforting thought or not.


  6. Bring on the medieval romance!

  7. … maybe the problem is not with the house, but with ourselves.

    I’ve found this to be true for SO many things. When the source of the problem originates not with something in my environment, but with me, changing the environment won’t help. After all, as the Buckaroo Banzai quote puts it “Wherever you go, there you are.” (I’m pretty sure the quote didn’t originate with the film — I’ve seen at least one person attribute it to Confucius, for example — but I can’t seem to find the original source.) Another example of this principle: the success rate of second marriages is a lot lower, on average, than the success rate of first marriages. If Joe and Sally got divorced, there was a reason for it. Maybe it was entirely Joe’s fault and Sally’s second marriage will go swimmingly, but most likely the problem(s) that led to the divorce were a mix of personality traits of both spouses — and so as Sally enters into her second marriage with Bob, she carries some of the same personality traits that caused her marriage to Joe to collapse. Maybe she’s grown up a little and learned to deal with them, maybe she hasn’t — time will tell.

    On the other hand, this isn’t a depressing thought once you realize the right way to look at it, because it means that it is possible to reduce the problems you’ll face in the future. If, like me, you’re a procrastinator and can point to hundreds of problems this has caused you in the past, there’s a simple (NOT easy… but simple) solution: change yourself. Learn the truth that there is no such thing as doing something “tomorrow” — by the time tomorrow gets here, it will have become “now”. And since “now” is the only time when things EVER get done, why not go ahead and do them now? It’s not easy, as I said, but I have had some success with this… and I’m suffering fewer procrastination-related problems now than I did ten years ago.

    • I think I’ve found the oldest source for that “Wherever you go, there you are” quote. (The Confucius attribution seems to be mistaken: he said “Wherever you go, go with all your heart,” which while a similar quote, is expressing a different idea.) Thomas a Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ, said:

      The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross.

      “Wherever you go, you bear yourself” is a better way of phrasing it than “Wherever you go, there you are.” But it’s clearly the same idea, unlike the Confucius quote.

  8. BTW, Sarah, a quick question for you while I’m thinking about it:

    There’s a snack in Thailand called “foi tong” (which means “golden hair” or “golden thread”), which involves taking egg yolks, beating them and straining out any solid bits so that there’s only liquid left, and then drizzling them into a hot (boiling) syrup solution so that the egg yolks harden into a long, sweet-tasting thread. Just recently, my Thai language teacher told me that the snack didn’t originate in Thailand, but came from Portugal. Does that sound plausible to you? Is there a Portuguese snack like that?

    The process of making foi tong, if anyone’s curious, can be seen in the following video. (Audio is in Thai with no subtitles, but since it’s a cooking instructions video, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.)

    • Yep, although it’s medieval and not often done. But I have a recipe.

    • Gah, pasted the wrong video link. And now I can’t find the Foi Tong video. I swear I had it just a few days ago… Oh well, I’ll link it when I find it again.

      • No problem. I actually have the recipe for the Portuguese sweet. (Didn’t look at the video.) I made it for our first Halloween Party. In Portugal it’s called Torch drippings.

        • This is the kind of multiculturalism I can’t find a single bad thing to say about:

          awesome new foods from strange corners of the globe.


          • Oh yes. Foods, cool clothing and shoes. (Oh, get a grip. I have two X chromosomes.)

            • And music and dance. Except then when you learn the original lyrics, or learn where the dance was originally performed, or when the food was eaten. So what? I can declare that it has a new context (sort of) in our culture. 🙂

      • Found the video I was thinking of:

        Instructions are in Thai, but if you just watch the video it’s pretty obvious how to make it. The only thing that’s not obvious is the herb she throws into the syrup for flavoring, and you safely leave that out, or substitute with some flavoring easily available where you live. (I’ve heard that vanilla works pretty well.)

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Ooh! Egg yolk funnel cakes! Awesome!

  9. BC (before chemo) I used to do a full housecleaning every season. I lost a lot of my physical abilities and now, I feel happy if I have the energy to write and vacuum. I wash the dishes, every once in a while, I go through the paper that seems to accumulate. The other day I did a really good dusting. I find that I can’t clean or write on the same day. It is like I have so few spoons that I have to hoard them.

    • I hear you. When I’m well I can function, but as soon as I’m ill, the question becomes: ‘Spoons? Spoons, plural? Like, when did that ever happen?’

      • It was pretty dramatic for me. Before 41 I was walking several miles three times a week and was getting a Master’s in Adult Education. After 41 I was in the hospital for Vasculitis. I haven’t been the same since. (Chemo/prednisone combo is what is used for this disease– not fun at all.)

  10. 1: Get someone else to read the romance, and then put it up for sale… 🙂

    2: What kinds of hair-clips? Might be I’d pay you to take ’em off your hands. Otherwise, I advise the purchase of a sealable plastic box from the grocery store — one of the transparent “put food in it” kinds — and dump ’em in there while you decide if you want to give them to goodwill or what. It’s sealed, so the clips can’t accumulate further dust, and if the box gets dusty… it’s sealed, so you can just rinse it off entirely if you want. And it’s sealed, so you can turn it upside down with impunity when storing it. And it’s plastic, so you just write “HAIR CLIPS” on the side(s) with a permanent marker, and you can put it on a shelf without worrying it’ll become An Anonymous Plastic Box.

    …my house needs more shelves. And for the basement to be finished. So we can put all the kid’s cruft down there. (Possibly winnowing as we do.) The only child of two only children… And as my maternal grandmother was still alive for a large chunk of the kid’s smaller years, and my mom was her only child, and they were 2,000 miles away… *headdesks at the clutter*

    • If the hair clips are the so-called French-clips, the larger size, I’d buy some.

      • They’re all types and they’re mostly not really expensive types. I guess when I was working on the house in Manitou I’d lose one and grab another when my hair got in the way, next time I went to the gorcery store. The two finds I’d completely forgotten buying are one of those plaques you put a stick through to hold it, both in silver, and also a well sort of a snood, but in silver, with a silver hairstick. Those I’ll be keeping, anyway. There are also an array of ornamental combs, but I’d probably keep those too, because I might decide to wear a bun in my old age, like grandma did.

  11. I can sympathize! In spades. Our youngest daughter got married in 2005. Since then, they’ve moved about eight times, not including the times they’ve moved back in with us “for a month or two”. My garage is full of their stuff, my basement is full of their stuff, half my storage shed has their stuff…

    At the same time, my problems have gotten worse, Jean’s health has slowly gotten worse, and there’s always more housework than energy to take care of it. Also, a little boy can make more messes in less time than two geriatric adults can clean up, period. The house stays relatively neat, we dust about twice a month (we have horrible dust, living three blocks from three busy streets), and no one has had food poisoning from the dishes not being washed. Getting time to write early in the day is difficult. I don’t start thinking until after my second LARGE cup of coffee. The best time for me has turned out to be after dinner.

  12. “…and it would be sane to downsize if/when the boys leave. (Though the advantage of this house for the times we live in is that it can easily fit two families. – three would be a bit cramped.)

    Getting the kids to launch is the challenge these days. (Not a comment on your boys, just kids in general).

    • yes. A lot of the kids are going for Masters because there are no jobs. Not my kids, just kids.

      • One reason a lot of kids aren’t launching is on account of they’re wore out working three twenty-nine hour a week jobs and still not making any money. Raising the minimum wage is gonna make the two jobs they retain pay better, but not much better.

        See: http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/163918/

        • Walter Russell Mead reports on the problems in the PHd market:

          PhD Problems: Wannabe Professors Need Not Apply

          PhD students are in serious trouble, and not only because the job market for professors is shrinking more every day. Over at the Daily Beast Megan McArdle offers some penetrating insights about the attempt of PhD programs to prepare their students for jobs outside academia (called “alt-ac” jobs, alternative to academic):


          What makes things worse is that PhD programs train you in a very narrow range of skills really only suited for academia. PhD students are trained to write, but only as professors write, which doesn’t usually translate well into journalism. They’re trained to teach, but usually in the specialized context of large research universities, so the degree wouldn’t really prepare you to teach at the high school level, nor would it give you much of an edge in the brave new world of MOOCs.

          • Most kids now day would be better served, instead of going to a four year college, going to Technical school to learn welding, machine repair, manufacturing processes.

            Hell, done right you come out of the school debt free with a job, for the price of 2 to 5 years working for that manufacturer. *We* realy bought into the only way to get a head is go to college.

            “Shop Class as Soulcraft” An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford


            Electictions & lines men?

            What we have now is a highly educated youth with no real world job experiance, all for the price of a small house.


  13. After two dust storms in a month, one of which caught me off-guard with the windows unsealed, I began to understand who so many women had breakdowns during the peak of the Dust Bowl. *looks at office, pretends not to see office* Let’s not talk about clutter, shall we?

    • Having lived in New Mexico, very close to White Sands, I can empathize, Tx. It’s even worse when you have a dust storm and a BRIEF rainshower happen at the same time. Instant mud! At least we were younger then… 8^)

    • About five years back my town government, bastion of hyper-intelligent hard-working clear-thinkers, decided to repave the main road adjacent to my house. So they had a contractor rip up all the asphalt, leaving a dirt roadbed.

      THEN they asked the sewer contractor “how long until you can replace the sewers?”. Answer: “eight months”.

      …so the town left this heavily trafficked 40mph road as a dirt road all summer long.

      …until four months of citizen outrage got it paved.

      …just in time for the sewer contractor to show up and rip up the asphalt again.

      That was the Summer of Dust here in TJICistan.

      (Extra fun side story: they ripped up the asphalt on the side street I live on too. They decided to pave that side street one day several months later. And, of course, because government employees are all geniuses, they gave everyone a week of notice.

      No, I’m joking of course. I returned from lunch one day to find my car, which had been legally parked on the street, had been asphalted AROUND. Yes. There was one small patch of dirt road directly under the car.)

  14. Scott Harrison

    If you can possibly afford it, get a central eletronic air filter. Honeywell makes a good one that goes in the return air duct. I used to have one and it allowed people allergic to cats to live in a house with three cats with no problem. I got my chain smoking parents one and suddenly I could visit without peering through smog the entire visit. It also cut my mother’s dusting at least in half.

  15. Your mistake was in not returning the royalties check to your publisher while murmuring Oh no, I could not possibly accept more payment after you were so generous as to publish it.

  16. Now, I’m not going to tell you that I’m about to become the world’s best housekeeper. I think my fans would rather I do three or four more books a year.

    Oh no, dear — we just want you to be happy*.

    *applies only to certain values of happy, your mileage may vary, satisfaction not guaranteed.

  17. Dunno if you are already doing this, but are you wearing some kind of face mask whilst cleaning? (and thus stirring up whatever made you ill in the first place…) The cheap disposable kind are better than nothing, but you might want to try the full gas-mask-looking things. I have some kind of godawful mineral wool insulation in my attic (thanks, Depression v 1.0!) and I wear mine up there otherwise I cough like I have black lung. (Looks like this)

    • can’t use the gas mask things. Have one. But my vision has got so bad, I can’t see when the glasses fog.

      • I suffered from really bad mildew attacks while cleaning in an apartment. I wound up buying a 3M P100 particulate respirator, with the carbon cored hot pink filters that screw on. We used thim in a shop when the fabricators were welding on nasty stuff. It just covers the nose and mouth, you can wear glasses without them fogging up like with a full face mask. It is worth it, I went from drooling snot with my brain itching to clear sinuses and rational thought. It also cuts the chlorine fumes.
        Someone pointed out that you need to take it off when you answer the door, otherwise people will think you are cosplaying Breaking Bad.

        • We had mildew in the humidifier filter, which no one told us needed to be changed. That’s cleaned. I figure the rest of the house cleaning will get rid of any residues. I don’t think there’s much, to be honest. This is CO — it can’t live in the AIR.

          • Well, it works on dust-mite dust and pollen too, when you are disturbing the dark corners.

            In the Pacific Northwest, what doesn’t rust or mildew spews pollen.

            • I know. I LOVE the place, and I don’t think I could live there. But I’d like a beach house for use in winter. (What? I LIKE the coast in winter!)

              • I love the coast in the winter, at least to visit. The eternal salt damp gets me down after a while. I don’t know how the coast damp is heavier, say, than 7 days of rain anywhere inland, but it is, somehow.
                When I worked for a farm equipment shop we’d have customers, who’d come out to pick up equipment from the Boise area. They’d bring the kids and drive the extra 70 miles to spend an extra day at the coast.

  18. Several years ago, my folks were convinced we were going to move, so we packed up a (literal) truckload of boxes and stowed them in a rental unit. Then months went by, and months went by, and more months went by. Then they refinanced instead, so all that stuff had to come back. Of course, by then we’d acquired new junk. So all the boxes went into the living room and–sat there.

    • well, part of this is getting rid of stuff that no longer fits. Some is literally clothes, but a lot is stuff I’d bought because “the kids might want to read it” (turns out their tastes are about like mine) or stuff that I had on paper because “they’re not reprinting it anymore” — but which is now in guttenberg. ETC.

  19. Pom poms, definitely.

    I wonder if it isn’t a seasonal thing. After talking about it for … months — maybe years … Toni and I finally unburied the shredder today. I had no IDEA there was such a backlog. A full — I mean FULL — garbage bag of confetti later…

    And in the process of moving stuff around to get AT the thing, we discovered all manner of dust. Two people and ten cats make a LOT of dust bunnies. Or dust kittens.

    But it just FEELS seasonal. Like “spring is coming.” Although here in SW Ohio, we’re probably due at least one more good winter storm before the spring monsoon.

    Did you know that most dust is dead skin? No? Well, see? You learned something.


    • More staircase wit. Boy asks his father, “Dad? You know that thing in the Bible? ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall go?'” “Yes, son.” “Well, I looked under the bed and there’s somebody either coming or going.

      Ba-dump-bump. I’ll be here all week.


    • People clean for the Spring because that’s when you can open the windows and let the dust escape.

      • It was also the end of the season for burning coal in the main part of the house, with the dust and soot that went with it. So you cleaned all that mud, coal dust, and other ick out in spring. Or at least you did in places that do not have vernal dust storms.

        Now you are supposed to clean in the fall, before you shut the house up and turn on the heater.

  20. Sarah, I remember you commented once about the Litter robot and how much you liked it http://www.amazon.com/Litter-Robot-Automatic-Self-Cleaning-Beige/dp/B000LJDLKG). Is that still the case? I just finished a cleaning/re-org of my mother’s room, and it’s time to move the kitty litter back in. And get a new cat, of course.

    After the thoroughly disgusting habits of Mom’s old cat (I had to put her litter tray in the center of10 square feet of plastic, running it up the walls, layering it with newspaper, with an outer perimeter of small area rugs to catch the litter that she dragged or kicked or just malevolently used a small wormhole to transport out of the containment area), I yearn for something just a measure tidier.

    • yep. If you keep it reasonably clean, add litter, and don’t walk in your sleep, empty it and then forget to refill it, (don’t ask) it keeps litter the least smelly it’s possible (with FOUR cats.) I recommend emptying the tray twice a week. (And regular bags do for it.) And cleaning the unit once a month if possible. My cats prefer the one with the window.

      • I don’t have to ask–my imagination is working overtime 🙂

        • Well, it’s the only explanation I HAVE. Suddenly the cats peed on my bed, TWICE (always late at night) and the family that put up with three sets of ruined sofas (the plan is that Robert takes one of the alpha males when he goes) is thinking “we can’t live like this!” Then I go to empty the boxes, and not only are the boxes devoid of litter (and one of them was still trying to use them) but so is the drawer. Only thing I can think is that I walked in my sleep.

  21. DO make sure there is no hidden mold anywhere in the house. That is something which really can make you ill, and not necessarily only with respiratory problems. A lot of what you have told about sounds like it could very well be connected to some sort of mold exposure.

    • I know someone who had to have the walls of her house ripped out, on account of mold. (And then there was all the crap that was getting under our improperly-sealed siding and around the doorframes (also improperly sealed). You should’ve heard the things our handyman said! Especially when he found the sliding glass door’s hole was cut too wide, so the builders patched it with duct-tape, glue, and insulation. NO KIDDING. …we have a new sliding glass door now.)

      • Oh, four years ago older son slipped in shower, put hand out to tile wall. tile wall caved. Turns out they hadn’t put the water proof board behind, just regular plywood. Yeah…