A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, August 15, 2014

Let's get dirty

“Mommy?  Is it ok if I get my pants muddy?”
I looked down at Molly.  She and her sister were splashing at the silty edge of the Chena River. There was mud oozing through the mint-green holes in her Crocs, mud caked in a ring around the bottom of her pants, and mud on her arms up to the elbow.  By normal standards, her question is a wee bit late in coming.  But I knew what she meant.  “Go for it,” I told her.
“Yes!” Molly let out a happy-kid noise, and just in case her twin didn’t hear the good news, passed it on:  “We can get dirty!” And both children immediately plunged waist-deep into the dense brown muck.
Part of me sighed inwardly.  Letting kids get dirty – really dirty, as dirty as they want to be -- is not without consequences.  Those consequences are not only logistical, but also social.  Filthy children earn odd looks from strangers – or, even worse, non-looks.  You know what I mean: that brief and scuttling glance that is followed by a fixed inability to see all things that are simply too vile and offensive to exist in polite society. 
This is no minor taboo.  Americans are clean folks.  A New York Times article from 2010 starts with the lead, “A daily shower is a deeply ingrained American habit. Most people would no sooner disclose they had not showered in days than admit infidelity.”
Well… gosh. 
Of course, my ruminations here are focused on my filthy children, and my propensity for allowing them to become even filthier, rather than on my own habits with regard to… um… showering. Thus, I don’t really need to confess as to the frequency with which I fully immerse myself in water (not every day – and my hair only once-a-weekish).  Nor do I need to divulge how often I wash my jeans (occasionally), my sheets (when I remember), my windows (only in extreme cases), or my computer keyboard (once per U. S. President).   And yet, I now realize that our culture is so squeamish about being “dirty” that we don’t necessarily clarify whether that means the same thing as being “covered with dirt”-- which my children, at that moment, indubitably were.
Dirt and dirtiness are related, of course – and yet also peculiarly unrelated.  As far as I can tell, there are several fundamentally different reasons why we wash things.  These include health (influenza is bad; cholera is really really bad); odor (Americans have declared a war on armpits); comfort (wow, these sheets feel nice without all the crumbs); visual aesthetics (no, Lizzy, you can’t save that ice cream on your chin for later); and a combination of social pressure and cultural habit (I can’t go out, I haven’t taken even taken a shower!)
Okay: health.  That’s easy.  I’m… wait for it… in favor of it! Yes!  Yay, health!  I get annual flu shots and the recommended number of physicals, and I vaccinate my kids. I try to keep everyone’s immune system in tip-top shape via consumption of blueberries, brown rice, and chard; plenty of sleep; and vigorous bike-riding, wrestling, and duck-duck-goose.   I encourage lots of hand-washing.  I avoid contact with bubonic plague-bearing fleas, and I generally eschew exchanging bodily fluids with strangers. 
Moreover, I’m an avid washer-off of the type of dirt correctly termed “super-nasty-chemicals-that-we-insist-on-spraying-on-stuff”.  These, like Yersinia pestis, aren’t usually visible.  Nonetheless, they come conveniently ready-applied to our fruit and pre-injected into our farm animals.  How handy!  Ironically, toxins (which to me seem like the ultimate in “dirtiness”) seem to show up in a lot of our cleaners, probably because anything designed to obliterate germs tends to be iffy for your own body, too.  I’m careful (but not always consistent, and certainly not obsessive, because who has the energy to be either consistent or obsessive?) about avoiding that kind of dirt – the kind that no one thinks of as “dirt”.  Heck, I don’t even use mosquito repellant with DEET in it.  Yes, that’s right.  I don’t use DEET.  And I live in Alaska.
Speaking of mosquitoes, let’s move on to the “comfort” argument.  Well, I’m in favor of comfort, too – but my views on what is delightfully cushy don’t always seem to mesh very well with other people’s opinions.  In my world, grimy sandals held together with duct tape are extraordinarily comfortable, as is this marginally stained t-shirt and this pair of shorts that are on their third or fourth or maybe seventh wearing since they last rolled around in the washing machine.  The smear of bike grease on my leg and the trace of ketchup on my elbow are probably comfortable, too given that I’ve forgotten about them.  Stiff new shoes and buttoned-up cleanliness?  Not so much.
Most adults seems to take it as a given that being wet or messy is intrinsically uncomfortable.  But I suspect that this is a learned discomfort, rather than an intrinsic one.  Small children make great bell-weathers, in that they are hyper-sensitive (read: scream like banshees) in response to the smallest boo-boo.  They will do their very best to reach their 117-decibel potential1 if they are too cold, are stung by a bee, or are forced to wear an itchy sweater.  However, they don’t much care about being a little sweaty, or even dripping with sweat.  So long as they are not chilly, they also don’t mind being rain-damp, or full-on head-to-toe sloshing-with-every-movement rain-soaked.  Mud? Grime?  An upended jar of honey?   The more the better!  They will happily wiggle their hands into the Play-Doh, plunge their arms into the wet sand, and hurl their whole exhilarated bodies into a swamp. 
Which is, of course, exactly what my kids were doing on the banks of the flooded Chena.  We were, at that moment, eight miles from home, with only our trusty tandem Trail-a-Bike as transportation.  Whatever degree of filth and moisture the kids accumulated, they would be wearing, publicly, all across town.   I, of course, would be branded as The Mom Who Let Her Kids Go Out Like That.
Which bring us to the “social norms” argument for cleanliness.  I worry about this one, at least occasionally.  Given that “odor” is in some ways a sub-category of “respectability”, I do augment my sporadic shower regimen with frequent spot-washing of any stinky areas.  I do this mostly for the sensibilities of others, rather than for my own.   Katherine Ashenburg, author of a book entitled “The Dirt on Clean,” notes that the idea that human sweat is unutterably repugnant is both relatively new and relatively geographically localized.  Still, I wear deodorant.  I draw the line at anti-perspirant, though -- because what IS that stuff?  Does it fill your pores with Crazy Glue, or what?
I also worry, with regard to Not Being A Social Freak, that word is already out that if you drop off your innocent child for a playdate under my care, she will be returned with mud stains, grass stains, blueberry stains, and weird stains of unknown origin.  You might find, for example, that when she gets into your tidy family car, her shorts are soaking wet.  There may be twigs in her hair.  On one notable occasion, over the course of about five hours, I managed to transform two perfectly respectable and fully clothed girls, then aged six and ten, into feral shirtless creatures streaked with dirt, fermented wild-cranberry war-paint, and dried blood.
Yes, this can occur in the space of time that it takes you to enjoy a nice movie-date and shop for some new patio furniture – because, okay, I really am The Mom Who Lets Kids Do That. 
I am also The Mom Who Remembered Being That Kid.  There’s a correlation, I’m betting.  My own mother told me stories about her early childhood, which – despite being somewhat lacking in store-bought toys, due to the wallop Great Britain took in WWII – was apparently rich in entertainment.  Did you know that little sweet little English girls back in the 1940’s enjoyed chasing each other around idyllic and bucolic fields, hurling partially dried patties of cow poop?  Well, now you do.  Perhaps not surprisingly, my mother often happily allowed her own daughters to be Those Kids. 
When Heckscher Park redid all the earthworks around the tiny artificial lake (which was always crowded with ducks that had grown neurotically greedy and diarrheic from being fed PBJ crusts and the stale ends of Pop-Tarts) the temporary result was… mud.  We children marveled at the oodles of wonderful mud, replete with rivulets of water just begging to be dammed, redirected, and coaxed into a miniature mud-nirvana of lakes, ponds, streams, and, well… mud.  The moms – it was almost all moms at the playground, back in the Carter era – fell into two distinct camps regarding whether it was okay to enter this heavenly world.  I can’t have been more than about six at the time, but I remember the inner gratitude and relief of knowing that my own mother was in the correct camp.
Living on Long Island, we also spent a lot of summer hours on the beach.  Grownups seemed to use the beach as a place to read a book, and perhaps, if it got really hot, to take a sedate swim.  After swimming, they went through elaborate towel-rituals to avoid getting too sandy.  I, on the other hand, thought of the beach as a place to dig, splash, collect peculiar sea-treasures, and roll around until coated like a sugar-doughnut.   Every time I got home and took off my bathing suit, I discovered that I’d been harboring upwards of seventeen pounds of sand in there – and maybe a few yards of seaweed and a horseshoe crab or two.
As I got older, though, I recall feeling a vague pressure to start being cleaner. Big kids – especially big girls -- were supposed to start living by some of the grownup rules.  What were those rules?  Well, as Ashenburg puts it, “For the modern, middle-class North American, ‘clean’ means that you shower and apply deodorant each and every day without fail.”  Certainly, I knew that Big Girls were supposed to be tidier.  Neater.  Less grubby.  Not only were we supposed to be that way, we were supposed to feel that way.  We were supposed to think that dirt was ewww, gross.  Spiders, caterpillars, and competitive spitting of watermelon seeds2 were all right out.
I never quite managed this transformation. (You’re all shocked.)  Oh, some things changed. I stopped wandering around with chocolate ice cream on my chin, and I tried not to pick my scabs or my nose in public. There may have even been a few teenage years during which I did not plunge myself bodily into hip-deep mud.  But I never fully internalized the correct repugnance the stuff our whole planet is made of – namely, dirt.
And then, thank goodness, I found summer employment doing trail repair – first, in high school, with the Student Conservation Association, and then, in college, with the Adirondack Mountain Club.  As a member of a trail crew, being dirty – really REALLY dirty – wasn’t just a matter of course, it was a matter of pride.  We were foul.  We were encrusted.  We were so dirty that we were banned from the Lake Placid Laundromat for fouling their washers, and had to take to presoaking our clothes in the lake.  My summers were, in short, delightful.
I couldn’t remain forever in a time-machine College Summer, but moving to Alaska was the next best thing.  Watching my kids cavort in the Chena, even knowing that we’d be sloshing our way home, I still felt like less of a pariah than I would have if we’d been about to board a Long Island Railway train full of people reading the New York Times and pretending not to be able to see me.
Of people like me, the Times has this to say: “Resist the urge to recoil at this swath of society: They may be on to something. Of late, researchers have discovered that just as the gut contains good bacteria that help it run more efficiently, so does our skin brim with beneficial germs that we might not want to wash down the drain.”
Good to know, New York Times.  My bacteria-friends and I get along pretty well.  Still, I’m feeling a bit sensitive about your use of the word “recoil”. 
Indeed, I’m guessing, based on the NYT take on the matter, that most Americans, as products of a media-driven profit-motivated “culture of clean that has prevailed at least since the 1940s” really might recoil – from me, from my kids, from the muddy bike ride across town that was now inevitable.  Their TVs have told them to scrub, to cleanse, to sanitize, to deodorize -- and the TV knows all.
Likewise, Ashenburg notes the effect of the power of advertising, and the inexorable pushing away of dirt that began around the time of WWII.  Her assessment adds yet another twist: “While ads for men told them they would not advance at the office without soap and deodorant, women fretted that no one would want to have sex with them unless their bodies were impeccably clean. No doubt that's why the second-most-frequent question I heard during the writing of this book — almost always from women — was a rhetorical ‘How could they bear to have sex with each other?’ In fact, there's no evidence that the birthrate ever fell because people were too smelly for copulation.”
Oh, heavens.  Nope, I’m not going into detail on that one.  But, seriously, America?  If you really, truly think that sex is a 100% neat, tidy, sanitary, non-sweaty, super-clean activity that looks like a Disney cartoon and smells like Scrubbing Bubbles… um, I hate to criticize, but I think you may be doing it wrong.
It’s not just sex I’m talking about here, America.  Even as I worry about how I may be judged, I know that telling me to stay squeaky clean all time – well, it seems like about as viable a notion as telling a goldfish to stay dry.  Gardening involves dirt.  Chopping firewood is not neat.  Hiking through a forest, canoeing down a river, and biking a trail are not sweat-free and fully sanitized activities.  Earth, soil, worms, dogs, joy, connection, exploration, LIFE – none of these things are anything like a blue Windex sheen on a polished surface.  And yes, America, having kids is not tidy, either.  Not at any stage in the process.
I glanced at my own kids, splashing with delight in the murky water – then looked again.  I was pretty sure I only had twins, but now there were three of them.  A round-faced little boy, slightly smaller than my two, had sprouted from nowhere and sidled in to join the fun.  As I watched, he gazed admiringly at his role models – my filthy, filthy, daughters.  As I watched, he precisely copied Molly’s mud-ball-forming technique.  As I watched, one of his legs sank gleefully knee-deep. 
“Tyler!  Tyler!3  From the park plaza above, I heard the distinct call of a mother duck who has lost her chick.  Her voice was not yet worried, but was thinking about being worried.
“He’s down here,” I called, not without some trepidation.  He’s down here, and I’ve ruined him.
Within seconds, both of Tyler’s parents ambled into view.  They looked at their kid.  I looked at them.  I saw, from the mom-person, a slight grimace.  But the dad was now watching Molly, who was bent over and digging rapidly and assuredly, like a puppy, making a fortification out of a huge heap of mud.  Then he looked at Lizzy, her pigtails flying half loose, her jeans sodden, and some unknown substance caked on one side of her face.  Finally, he glanced at me.  I wasn’t precisely IN the mud, but, then again, my sandals were neither clean nor dry. 
Tyler’s dad grinned enormously.  “He’s found friends,” he said.

1 Roughly equivalent to a jackhammer or a jet at takeoff.
2 What has happened to all the seeds, you zombie-fruit-designing agriculturalists?  I want the watermelon seeds back!
3 Not his real name.  I’m not trying to protect him; I just can’t remember his name.