Sunday, August 18, 2013


Until recently, Brian and I had a completely different approach to cleaning the house. He operated on what he called the "70% rule" and I operated on a rule governed by 100% or 0%. I'll explain using the dinner dishes as an example.

If Brian were working alone, in a matter of five or ten minutes after dinner, he would have piled almost all of the dishes into a heap in the dishwasher (un-rinsed), he would have washed almost all of the soap off of the mostly clean pots, and he would have picked up (and probably eaten) any big chunks of food from under the table. A few cups or utensils would straggle behind, and he wouldn't sponge the counters or sweep the floor (unless he had made his own pizza because on those nights, the mess of flour and cornmeal requires it). With that, he'd be done. Seventy percent clean. One hundred percent done. 

When my "old self" worked alone, it was a whole different story. After dinner, the dishes would stay put while I puttered around -- maybe playing with the kids or organizing the mail or paying bills. If I was especially tired that night, I'd think to myself about how much of a chore those dirty dishes seemed, and I'd wait...hoping that my energy level revved up again. In the meantime, I'd add to the mess with whatever else I was doing. That was my 0%.

When my energy engine was fueled up again, I'd clean; like really clean. I'd sweep the floors, wipe every spec off the countertops, and even sponge down the front of the dishwasher. Not a single cup or utensil straggled behind...until a few hours later when Brian put his empty ice cream bowl in the sink. I wanted to scream when he did that -- Maybe in your crappy 70% kitchen that is acceptable but can't you see this one is 100% perfect?!? But I just bit my tongue and put the dish in the dishwasher. (OK, I may have murmured something under my breath, too, but he had no idea.)

Meanwhile, Brian was probably murmuring under his breath when I was in my 0% mode, piling dirty dishes in the sink and leaving a trail of everything I touched. He had every right to be thinking something like, Can't this woman find some middle ground? But he knows that middle ground doesn't come naturally for me. I've never been good at 70%.

*  *  *

I still hesitate to say that cancer changed me, mostly because I'd never want to give it such power. Also, I still believe that it was writing that really changed me and I won't give cancer writing's credit.

But in the last several months (which is long enough for me to believe it's not just a phase), I've realized a way that I have changed, and I figured I needed to set the record straight, especially since back in January, I dedicated two entire blog posts to the topic of organization.

So, to come clean (no pun intended), when I started this post this morning, I literally sat in a house that was maaaaybe at a 12% cleanliness level. In the hallway to my right, there were piles of wet towels, bathing suits, and Crocs, as well as bags full of sunscreen, work binders, dolls, and water toys. To my left there was a play table covered in cut-up paper and ripped out coloring book pages. The plastic box labeled "Markers" had some crayons in it and the box labeled "Crayons" contained some PlayDoh. Teddy's Wii games were scattered all over the floor, interspersed with Annabel's fake food, leopard mask, boy shoes, and Red Sox sweatshirt.

Brian had gone to pick up the groceries we had ordered online (best invention ever). I stayed behind with the promise that I'd clean up before he got back. Still thinking I'd be loyal to my promise, I sat down to write.

I can't even remember what thoughts I felt I needed to get down, because as soon as I took my spot in the oasis that was my computer, I realized how much I had changed and I ended up wanting to write about that. Then an emergency thing for work came up, then the kids came home, then we unloaded groceries while the kids danced in their underwear (don't ask), then we had lunch and golfed and swam, and, well, now here I am again. And the house is at 70%.

The "old me" (however old that may be) would never have allowed myself to do something fun in a 12% (or 70%) clean house. Often, I didn't mind cleaning, in fact, it gave me a feeling of control I craved. But by the time I was done and the house was at a glistening 100%, I'd have missed my chance to do that thing I really wanted to do. I'd have certainly missed my chance to write.

Over the past several months, however, I've unknowingly found myself a convert of Brian's 70% rule. I'm dedicating this post to its awesomeness.

Now, if I'm being honest, I need to mention a certain variable that I've written about before. That variable is called Effexor and while I joke about it often (e.g., attributing any sanity I have to it), it does deserve a bit of serious talk.

From what I understand, Effexor is an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication that is part of the daily regimen for many people in active cancer treatment. (Apparently it's also used to help alleviate the side effects of menopause, even though I haven't experienced that yet.) Dr. Bunnell prescribed Effexor to me last fall after a conversation about my anxiety that I don't really remember.

Last Wednesday when I met with my therapy lady after my Herceptin treatment, I asked her about the Effexor. Is it something they will take me off of at some point? 

Dr. Fasciano explained that so long as it was helping me, it was good for now.

Here's the funny thing, though -- I have absolutely no idea how much it is or isn't helping me. How could I know? I've never been on anxiety medication until the cancer. Despite that I probably could have used some, I was always hesitant to turn to pills to fix something in me. I wanted to be able to fix myself myself.

Enter cancer, chemotherapy, anaphylaxis, neutropenia, Herceptin, and the realization that there are some things (ah, most things?) that I could never fix all alone. Soon after my diagnosis, I knew that I needed something to help me carry the heavy weights that had been placed on my shoulders, and more so, in my mind. Or better yet, I needed something that would help me avoid acting like Diane Keaton in my favorite scene from Baby Boom (when her well dries up).

Tonight while we got the kids ready for bed, we got the house up to 70%. The kitchen table is still a bit cluttered with things like a Lightning McQueen water bottle and a trucks place mat. Annabel's little plastic shopping cart is parked at the table like a fifth chair, and I'm certain her booster seat has hardened food in it. But I don't care. I'd rather write than sponge the table, and it'll just get messed up again tomorrow morning anyways.

And so I can't help but I wonder if it's the Effexor that makes me not care about that last 30%. I wonder if the little peach-colored pill I take every morning with my Tamoxifen is the reason why I do the dishes Brian-style now. Is that pill why adorable little fingerprints are still all over the stainless steel dishwasher?

The only way to really tell the effect of the Effexor would be to stop taking it and see if I become the crazy zero-to-one-hundred-percent lady again. But (without a discussion of these ridiculous details), Dr. Fasciano and I both agreed last week, If it ain't broke...

So I'll keep taking that little pill and I'll stay content in my 70%-ness. I'll wonder why I've changed but I won't dwell on it (maybe because the Effexor helps with that whole dwelling thing?). I'm only partly kidding.

In all seriousness though, I've found 70% to be a very happy place; the finger prints on the dishwasher are precious and Annabel's Lightning McQueen cup makes me think of how cute she will be tomorrow morning when she asks me to fill it with app-o juice. I've wasted a lot of time striving for that 100% when it just wasn't necessary. And no doubt, cancer has changed the way that I think about time.

Cancer, and even writing about cancer, didn't change me in any absolute way. Instead, it changed me on my already existing margins. I am who I was before, I think what I thought before, and I love how I loved before...just slightly different. Clearer; more healthful. More real. 

It turns out there's a lot I can do when I reallocate 30%. And there's such relief, such peace in the realization that sometimes, it's 70% that really feels like perfect. (Little peach-colored pill or not.)

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