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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Housecleaning is 'civilized,' but is it really worth the effort?

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

I have always hated housework as a necessary evil, but only since I moved to Hawai'i has it started to seem like a ridiculous, even surreal undertaking.

For six years, I have lived in a plantation-era cottage shaded by old mango trees off H-1. It's crumbling and dilapidated, the doors askew and the walls colonized with happy termites. My parents laugh at it, but I love my shack because it's funky and charming and suits me, most days.

The thing about living in an old house is that the barrier between inside and outside is full of holes, so that the outside never ceases its march in. Leaves, twigs and dirt blow through the cracks. Geckos, spiders, columns of ants and disoriented cockroaches know no better than to walk right in. That's how nature eventually reclaims everything in its path.

In fact, the only thing that keeps my house from blending into its dirt lot is my continuous battle to keep the outside out, to hold nature separate from this standard of untouchedness that says humans are still in charge. That's what separates the "developing" from the "civilized" worlds, the rich from the poor.

Once, it was only the rich who could afford total protection from the elements, because they had servants to guard the gates of their castles against intruders, whether foreign armies or dust mites.

But with economic prosperity after World War II, it became a mark of achievement in America to have a sparkling clean house in the suburbs — a standard that we women still kill ourselves to uphold.

I remember being shocked to see the house where my mother grew up, in rural Japan, in the 1930s. It had just four tatami-mat rooms, plus kitchen and bath in a dirt-floored area next to the barn.

To a child of suburban America, this looked like the very image of poverty: Inside and outside were not kept apart.

I have often wished since for a kitchen with a dirt floor, an outhouse, and a shower outside. I could stop trying to make these naturally messy, wet, organic areas into something else.

I suppose it is still considered a mark of civilization to have porcelain thrones to do our business on, but for me this honor is tainted by having to kneel down and stroke the ceramic shrine to sparkling splendor.

Carpeting is another puzzle. It looks smooth and feels tender on the feet, yet it is a trap for dirt, sweat and fur that is basically armpit hair for the house.

To make every surface appear untouched and hygienic — even though we live always surrounded by bacteria and dirt — requires an arsenal of machines and products that promise the momentary comfort of an antibacterial haven.

Is it worth it? Rather than struggle endlessly to seal myself off from the elements, I would rather spend my time and energy as our prehistoric ancestors did.

They worked, on average, six hours a day at basic survival, and devoted the rest of the time to things that really mattered to them: art, music, ritual, sport and stories. Such things, it seems to me — rather than liberating oneself from dirt and germs — really bear the marks of civilization.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.