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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Mystery of Trash

Much like the towel buying incident of my life, for an embarrassingly long time, the mystery of "taking the trash out" seemed to allude me. Like most families, my parents required my brothers and me to complete a list of weekly chores. My chores included helping with laundry, washing dishes many weekday nights, dusting and vacuuming various rooms, and cleaning the bathrooms. I didn't mind most of these, but I loathed cleaning the bathrooms, mainly because we lived in a house with five toilets and three boys. Maybe it was just my family, but the males in our house had a chronic inability to "hit their mark." All five toilet seats in our house suffered from a ubiquitous ring of dried pee.

Nearly every week I protested cleaning the toilets. I'd throw fits, stomping my feet, yelling to my mom about how unfair it was to make me clean the dried pee, when, clearly, I was not one of the culprits. In the time it took me to enact my protestation of the dramatically unfair, I easily could have cleaned all five bathrooms from start to finish. Finally, my mom's threats and demands succeeded, and I would resign myself to my Cinderella-eque fate, mumbling, between bouts of gagging, about the inequalities of life while scrubbing toilets on my hands and knees. The worst part about cleaning the toilets was that, inevitably, the minute I finished restoring one to its sparkling white state, one of the males would have to use it, and would, in true male-destructiveness, get pee on the seat. I assume the reason my mom didn't force them to just wipe down the seat every time after they went was because, like most males, they were not overly good at either remembering to do all those small tasks that greatly simplify the larger chores (rinsing dishes after using them, pushing in chairs, etc), or cleaning in general.

In contrast, my brothers had very few weekly chores. They had a habit of sneaking out of the kitchen on nights when they were supposed to clean the dishes (and some how getting away with it), and, in many cases, when my parents told them to do something, they would cheerily agree to it (as opposed to my overly dramatic refusals, followed by stubborn compliance) and then would simply "forget." For some reason, my parents both never figured out my brothers' schemes to avoid being productive members of our family, nor followed up on the agreed-upon chores and forced completion. In retrospect, I really should have just followed their example, instead of storing up so much resentment.

There was one chore, however, that my parents routinely forced my older brother to do: take out the trash. This was one he couldn't easily shirk and avoid, because it didn't take them long to revisit the kitchen trash can and realize it was still full. My brother hated taking out the trash about as much as I hated cleaning toilets (although, considering it took 2 minutes at the absolute, most stubbornly, slow pace, I don't see how the two are even comparable).

On a semi-weekly basis, my parents would engage my brother in battle over the trash.

"Brian, the trash is full. Go take it out."

Upon hearing this, Brian had two general choices of action: run from the room and pretend he didn't hear them, or begin to throw his own dramatic fit over the cruelties of life. If he chose the first path, he would inevitably end up heading down the second within a matter of minutes.

"But I HATE taking out the trash!!" he would wail.

My parents would insist.

He would stomp his feet and yell about the evils of "taking out the trash."

My parents stood firm.

Finally, realizing his defeat, Brian would sulk his way to the trash can, tie closed the bag, lift it out, and carry it out to the garage. In a matter of seconds, he would return, uninjured, and whistling happily to himself, only to leave the room and return to his video games. One of my parents usually replaced the garbage bag.

I sat through this occurrence countless times, observing his obvious distress, heartfelt protest, eventual crushing defeat, and the thirty seconds of labor required to get the trash bag to the garage. And then he would disappear into the garage.

Recognizing his performance as being remarkably similar to my own toilet-cleaning-induced frenzy, I had the utmost sympathy for him. However, from as far as I could tell, "taking out the trash" involved less than a full minute's worth of effort. To me, this clearly implied there was some devastating step I was missing - and this step obviously took place in the garage, the only place I couldn't witness the tortures of his chore.

This mystery of the required protest to taking out the trash endured in my mind for years. It was only exemplified by the countless jokes on sitcoms about lazy husbands who also dreaded this mandatory task. If so many people hated it so much, it simply had to be more complex than merely taking the trash bag out to the trash can. Surely an entire gender of mankind wouldn't react so violently against carrying a plastic bag twenty feet out to a plastic receptacle. There was something to "taking out the trash" that I was oblivious to. And it must have been absolutely dreadful (like cleaning a weeks' worth of your brothers' dried pee off of five different toilets, while on your hands and knees and breathing in the fumes of week old brother-pee).

For years I was thankful I had avoided this task falling to me. Not only must it have been truly terrible, but I was terrified I wouldn't be able to do it correctly, had it ever fallen to me, since I was blissfully unaware of the dreaded garage-phase of the chore. Had my parents ever asked me (which, fortunately, for my self-esteem, they didn't), I would have had to admit that I simply didn't know how.

In college, we had small trash cans in our dorm rooms, but all we had to do was empty our trash into the large dumpsters outside the dorms. To me, this meant we weren't really "taking the trash out," since it was so easy. Living in a dorm wasn't the same as living in a house. We weren't responsible for our own trash pick-up, and, consequently, we never had to perform the secret step. While living in Germany, I was provided with countless laminated pages on instruction on how to "take out the trash," since they separate and recycle every item of waste into five different colored bags. This was also so different than the traditional American experience, I assumed it was just in its own category of chores.

It wasn't until I got married and we lived in our own house that I ever had to face this dreaded chore on my own. Husband deployed to Iraq just six days after our big church wedding, so I was left in our house alone. Fortunately, we lived on an Army post, so we didn't have to arrange for our own trash pick-up; we were simply given a large trash receptacle and instructed that pick-up was on Wednesday mornings. After discreetly observing our neighbors, I learned that most people kept their receptacles on the side of their house (we didn't have garages - just car ports). Mimicking my neighbors (I'd make a good Stepford wife), I, too, kept my large receptacle by the side of the house. On Tuesday evening, I put my half-full bag of trash into it, wheeled it down to the curb (just as the neighbors had done with their own), went back in the house and restlessly slept, nervous I'd done something wrong, as I hadn't performed the mystery step.

Early Wednesday morning, I heard the garbage truck creaking its way around the neighborhood. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window, peering out between two slats of the terrible, 70's style blinds (ahh, government housing). I held my breath as they neared my house. I felt a cold sweat break out all over my body as they grabbed my trash can, turned it upside down and dumped the contents into the truck, returned it to the curb, and... drove on. I'd done it! I'd taken out the trash!! All by myself!!

Wait. It hit me. That literally was all there was to "taking out the trash." Somehow, in spite of the universal hatred of the chore, it actually only involved taking the trash out. I suddenly felt a stab of hatred toward my brother. All these years I'd pitied him. Thought his torture was similar to my own. Felt genuine camaraderie with him. And, as it turned out, he was just exceedingly lazy. But worse, my parents seemed to think his thirty seconds of work were equal to the weekly hour I spent scrubbing the bodily wastes of my brothers. Clearly, life is not fair.

It's been several years now since my first triumph with the American system of trash removal. I've lived in four houses, dealt with three different trash pick-up services, and, for the most part, have achieved a level of comfort with my ability to successfully "take out the trash."

Although, I do have to admit, Husband and I still regularly get into arguments about what we can and cannot throw away. Just recently, after our move, I called our new trash pick-up service to inquire about getting rid of all our extra boxes (both the empty flattened boxes, and the two dozen or so giant wardrobe boxes full of used packing paper). I was informed that the garbage truck "will not take more than 10 flattened boxes a week." I resigned myself to finding a recycling center in the area, ensuring they would take the large wardrobe boxes full of paper, and making dozens of trips out to them. I figured, within two months, we should be able to get rid of all the boxes.

Husband, however, insisted we just try to throw the boxes out. Start out small. One wardrobe box at a time. The first week, I found myself once again, hunched down by my windowsill, peering out at the garbage truck, holding my breath, sweating profusely, and watching in fear as they pulled up to our house. And there, before my very eyes, I watched them as they... took our trash. Just like we pay them to do. Fascinating!! The next week, Husband put out four large boxes. Again, the anxious wait in the shadows of my curtains. And again, another successful "taking out the trash" incident. By the fourth week of putting out boxes, I was less nervous, but still snuck peeks when I heard the truck rumbling down the street. Eventually, the garbage men (and woman) cleared our garage of boxes (I posted an ad for the empty, flattened boxes on some local website and got rid of them in a matter of hours).

And so it was that I uncovered the truth about "taking out the trash." Clearly, the only conclusion to draw is that men are ridiculous. If Husband or Boy ever try to complain about performing this simple duty, I'll be sure to put them on toilet duty for a month. Although, the fact remains that it's still their pee on the toilet.


  1. I truly am envious of your luck properly executing the most maligned (and deservingly so) regularly scheduled household chore. The problem is not with the average case: you are correct that taking out the trash should be simple, requiring no secret incantations or out-of-sight garage based rituals. However there exist a litany of possible mishaps that can turn the deceptively simple chore into one that would strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced dried pee removal specialists.

    First while I understand the odor of a poorly maintained bathroom is not by any means pleasant, the stenches that can originate in the bottom of an average kitchen trashcan are indescribable in a venue as limited as the commenting system on a blog. The devil's own gastrointestinal workings are nothing compared to the chimeric stench of a fish head unnaturally fused to a chicken carcass all marinading in a cocktail of leftovers past their prime. This problem is only exacerbated by procrastination which is mandated by following Homer Simpson's classic rule, a followup to the Bart's plea of "whoever tops it off drop its off:" "it isn't filled until it's spilled."

    Once I would manage to work up the olfactory fortitude to begin the extraction of the bag from the can itself, the perils expand vastly. Due to the aforementioned "topping off," the trash I took out as a child was never less than 110% full. In fact the trash was usually packed in so densely it was as if someone was attempting to spawn a small black hole under the kitchen sink. Needless to say I was rarely able to simply lift the bag out. The bag needs to be coaxed out very slowly at the razor thin equilibrium of trash bag handle strength vs gravity. So while in theory the trip out to the garage should take a mere 20 seconds, in practice it takes a full 6 minutes to carefully extract the bag from the can. And should my arms tire and I foolishly become so hasty as to cause the bag tear at the top, an advanced procedure too complex and hazardous to describe, but known as "double-bagging," must be employed at least doubling the time and risk exposure before I've even left the kitchen.

    Thanks to the genius engineers at Hefty, contemporary trash bags are made of proprietary polymers worthy of protecting the space shuttle from the heat generated during atmospheric reentry. Modern bags, if folded properly, have been theorized to be able stop a bullet as well as if not better than military-grade kevlar. The bags of the late 1980s were another story completely. They were manufactured to be thinner than a sheet of newspaper and half as strong. Engineered using technology pioneered by wolf spiders, these ancient bags could usually withstand the weight of several dead flies and perhaps even some morning dew before tearing. This fact virtually ensured that, on the off chance I successfully extracted the bag from the trash can, even the smallest dried lasagna noodle would perforate the side of the bag and slowly dripp primordial soup directly on my new shoes; or was I unfortunate enough to be taking out the trash during the summer, right on the foolishly exposed skin of my bare feet. You were probably unaware that in 1989 I suffered a particularly nasty chemical burn, composed mostly of rotting beef stroganoff, on my left foot that gives new meaning to the phrase "horrible disfigurement."

    It sounds to me like you have been exceptionally lucky over the years, no doubt helped by the breakthroughs of the 21st century petroleum-based manufacturing industry. You likely never even had to fight with the sadistic torture device formerly know as a "twisty-tie." I'm sorry to illuminate these horrors thus ruining your blissful ignorance but may these warnings serve as a call to caution for all who think that taking out the trash is a chore to be taken lightly.

  2. Oh dear brother. I'm going to have to save this and print out a copy for your children when you start trying to make them take the trash out. In spite of your annotations highlighting the drastic technological improvements of the task, I think your basic argument still holds true (and reinforces my initial intent that, clearly, I do not have a full grasp of all that "taking out the trash" entails), and will thus provide the perfect sloth-induced excuse for your children (who will, no doubt, require such an excuse, as half of their genetic make-up will come from you). It would appear as if you have successfully shot yourself in your very own chemically-burn-scarred foot. Bravo.

  3. Ok, this is the mom in these stories. And for some strange reason, I do not recall many of these aforementioned incidents, namely-1. that Laura had to clean all five toilets of brother pee all the time, as well as the fact we always had a dishwasher, so what is this "washing dishes" chore you speak of? and b. that our trash was always 110% full and as stinky as described. Did I even live in the same house as you two? When was there ever a fish head in our trash, let alone one that was fused to a chicken carcass? And why don't I remember the "horrible disfigurement" that resulted from the nasty chemical burn (from rotting beef stroganoff??) on your foot? I think you both suffer from faulty memories induced by fuchsia or rose or perhaps, filthy, garbage-coated, black colored glasses. Finally, however, even though I don't remember the details in quite the same way, I must make a sincere public apology for putting you both through such horrible, Dickensian even, childhoods that created figurative and (supposedly) literal scars of such magnitude.
    I am deeply ashamed.

  4. I don't know how I got here. I think I followed the rabbit through a Facebook hole. But this was supremely entertaining. And might I say, the Samsons make for good bloggers.