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Politics of housework and the Tao of 'Not My Turn'

THE problem with a household of six, in which the majority of the family are either adults (us) or near adults (them), is that everyone seems to think it's someone else's job to do anything.

This is what I grumble, or words to that effect, as I gather up six encrusted mugs, abandoned by my computer, then poke a finger inside a forlorn paper sack nearby, full of empty wrappers.

I can only imagine this conclusion is reached by each of us, any time something needs doing that is 'clearly' someone else's job, by means of a complex internal dialogue, at the end of which we each think we've come out the moral winner.

I imagine this, because that is precisely what I do. In fact, I did it just there. I poked my nose into a bag of rubbish and muttered, "Well, I'm bloody well not clearing that away."

The philosophy behind this, is that by leaving the bag exactly where it is, I'm teaching the perpetrator a lesson. What routinely happens, of course, is it simply begins to grow a jacket of dog hair and dust (which takes about an hour in our house) and it ends up looking like it has always been there.

I find these artefacts all the time. A cup poking out from behind a picture on the mantelpiece was there so long we'd sort of got used to it. It had started to "belong". Only that I was looking for some loose change, I happened to peek inside to discover the horrendous mouldering coffee-cheese inside.

"Buggered if I'm going to be the chump who tackles that," I think I mumbled, gagging slightly. Weeks later, the same cup, still exactly where it was, had gathered a collection of pencils and pens.

This philosophy of 'Not My Problem' is not to be confused, of course, with the 'Tao' of 'Not My Turn', which requires no internal dialogue.

It's the emergency exit door and inflatable slide away from any semblance of responsibility. It's a state of total cop-out Zen:

"Eh, don't leave the room until the dishes are done."

"Not my turn."

"Well, who's turn is it?"

(Shrugs), "I d'know." (Exits).

This, you'll notice, almost has rhythm of a Haiku, the ancient Japanese art of beauty and minimalism in verse, ruined only by the ending: me, cursing at a departing skateboard.

So, who's turn is it? No one knows. The roster is a closely guarded secret. All I can tell, is that dish duty is the turn of whoever isn't home at the time.

There's a beautiful symmetry to this. If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If dishes are stacked by a sink and there's no one there to do them, is it anyone's fault?

"Well, I'm outta here."

"Me too, gotta go."

The roster came about as the result of a democratic decision between our gang of four.

My wife and I could only look on as they secretly conferred, the Skull and Bones Society of our little union of independent states.

They'd each take turns, is what they finally decided, starting with the person who is currently away at scout camp.

Who are we, my wife and I, to interfere in matters of state? We're supposed to be the figureheads. To interfere with democracy would surely make us fascists. So the dishes stay there, attracting flies.

Things get done eventually, by someone, of course, but only grudgingly, and only after a figurehead steps in and seizes the reins of power, when president becomes prime minister.

"Wash the damn dishes and clear your crap up off the floor, or it's the Gulag for you. You can kiss your PlayStation privileges goodbye too. And I'd run a Geiger counter over your cornflakes if I were you.

Nothing ever happens by committee. Occasionally, a dictator has to step in. In this situation, a brand new household state emerges, a state of being, that is, something simultaneously cooperative and combative; action and protest in one.

Rather like 'hangry', when you become angry just because you're hungry, this one is where someone is angry because they're the one forced to clean up. They're cleaning angry: they're 'clangry'.


You can hear it before you see it. Vacuum cleaner bashing violently into doors, cutlery crashing into sink, puddles forming beneath 'clangry' dish-washing.

Mostly, however, we try to maintain a delicate equilibrium, my wife and I, by way of a sort of policy of benign indifference.

The boys continue to chuck their teabags at the compost bin. Sometimes they miss and leave a long brown streak down the wall. C'est la vie.

Once a week, before the cleaner (we'd smother to death without one), we hastily tidy up the worst of it, as if the queen is coming to tea.

At least, my wife does.

Best I can manage is hide a few cups behind the pictures on the mantelpiece.

After all, it's not my turn.