One of my favorite and most rewarding tasks is also one of my LEAST favorite, most resented tasks. I can’t quite understand how this can be: why do I like it when I hate it so very very much?

I’m talking about cleaning up the kitchen. Not a deep clean, but the act of restoring it to its default setting, which is decluttered and mostly wiped clean (but probably roiling with bacteria and hidden grime). At minimum, I do this job at some point in the morning after the kids head off to school, again after the kids come home and have snacks, and again after dinner, but because John and I both work from home, on a typical day some variation of this process gets repeated over and over and over.

It’s always so gratifying to be done with it, when I can look around and see clean surfaces and organized objects and everything smells at least halfway decent. That part reliably lights up the reward center in my brain, and sometimes the act of cleaning does too: I frequently turn on podcasts when I’m tidying and can feel a sort of pleasant relaxation from the familiar rhythms of it all, and take enjoyment from the incremental observable improvements as I go.

Other times, though, I get that dreary hamster wheel feeling, particularly when I’m faced with the more irritating messes: the cereal sludge that somehow never stays confined to the bowls, the black smudges from pencil graphite and newspaper ink, the downright astounding amount of crumbs that one goddamned english muffin produces.

Why can’t anyone get their dishes in the dishwasher, I think for the millionth time. Why is there always egg cooked onto the outside of the pan? What sadist invented Cocoa Pebbles’ ability to transform into brown cement if it isn’t rinsed before drying? Who here is getting a fresh glass every single time they want a molecule of water because it really fucking seems like everyone besides me is doing this?

Then again, when it’s clean, I am so pleased, and my mind is more clear, and I feel that weird sense of peace that comes from both environment and achievement. (And I’m talking about clean to my standard, you know: I do continually nag people into picking up after themselves, but ultimately that default setting is a requirement I set for myself, if that makes sense.)

The trick, it seems, for not getting overwhelmed by the grind of the job is to imagine the positive feelings of the result, but man, that is SO hard to do. Making my bed, exercising, eating healthy food, choosing sobriety, buying groceries, making a necessary phone call, talking to someone I don’t know … why do these things sometimes feel nearly insurmountable with unpleasantness and the despair of unending repetition, when the view from the other side is invariably filled with relief, lightness, and the renewed sense that I did the thing, I am strong and capable and I can do the goddamned thing?

I will never understand this trickery of the brain and I realize it’s not unique to me. This is surely why we have a $64 billion dollar diet industry along with a plethora of heavily fragranced cleaning product choices.

Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to see my end goals so clearly the scales will tip and I won’t be mired in the forever loop of ugh, AGAIN, but in the meantime, I guess I’ll just be here, wiping the countertops of my life. Over and over, because there are always crumbs, but I’m always willing to keep working for those shining surfaces.

It was picture retake day at Riley’s middle school last week, and I was there as the sole volunteer. It was just me and the sweet-natured photographer, who had the unenviable task of not only bringing in and setting up all the bulky equipment, but also posing and photographing each kid, a seemingly endless process which involved finding their information in a computer, dealing with the fact that they invariably did not have the required order form, and taking multiple photos if the flash caused glare on their glasses/they grimaced/they blinked/they took off their hair band but left it looped around their wrist, etc etc etc.

I have to say, this was a very thorough photographer. She really cared how the pictures turned out and her attention to perfection never waned, which was, frankly, both impressive and slightly baffling as the hours went on.

This all would have been manageable with a group of, say, seven kids. But there were SO MANY OF THEM. At least 50 middle schoolers who all needed a redo of the original picture day, either because they had been absent or their parents called bullshit on their refusal to smile — or, as was the case with several heavily-styled girls, they just didn’t like how the first photo had turned out.

The school inexplicably sent all these kids to the gym at once, which was of course a total fucking disaster. I did my best to corral them into a line and leverage my Mom Voice to the worst offenders but what group at this age could possibly be expected to stand there quietly for that long? Entropy quickly descended: somebody had found a roll of bright yellow caution tape on their way to school that morning and pieces were being handed around and tossed wildly in the air. By the time I called for backup the scene was nearing Lord of the Flies status, complete with DO NOT CROSS tribal headbands.

The sense of growing chaos was worsened by a teacher who showed up and was so visibly impatient with the fact that each kid was taking at least 3-5 minutes she was twitching from head to toe with each flash of the bulb. “Well, it is what it is,” I offered weakly with a shrug, in an attempt to help her find her inner zen, and the white-hot burn of her return gaze — like, are you fucking KIDDING me? — reached all the way to the backs of my eyesockets.

Eventually the vast majority of the kids were returned to their classrooms in favor of a system of calling them back in small alphabetical groups and I was left with the much more pleasant job of simply chatting with the remaining kids as they waited in line.

I guess I always thought this age seemed a bit impenetrable, roiling with condescension and rebellion, but every kid I talked with was pretty delightful in their own way. Some were silly, some were gentle, some were clearly a major handful, some were deeply and interestingly weird.

One boy was so tall and strongly-built I couldn’t believe he wasn’t an undercover millennial. I assumed that due to his popular-jock vibe he wouldn’t bother engaging with me, but he was friendly and polite. After boggling at his height for a while, I finally asked him something I was dying to know: “Dude, do you eat, like, INSANE amounts of food?”

“Oh man,” he said, grinning. “After dinner I pretty much just keep eating for about two hours.”

(I knew it. We are never going to be able to retire because groceries.)

The photo process was still well underway when I had to leave — in fact, they’d only reached “A through D” on last names, and I can’t quite imagine how things finally came to any sort of conclusion. Was it midnight, the photographer hollow-eyed and soaking with sweat but dogged in her refusal to compromise on quality? Did that stressed-out teacher finally dig a Xanax out of a long-forgotten purse pocket or was she carried out via stretcher? Is there still, right now, a line of kids shifting from foot to foot and building incremental resentment towards their mothers who just wanted a decent school picture this year for crying out loud?

But mostly I have been marveling at my own misperceptions, and how this age — while obviously tricky and mercurial for all sorts of reasons — is actually pretty damn great.

Although I have to say, they’re best taken in small doses. That pretty much rings true for humans of every age, though.

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