A conversation with Sally Koslow, author of the Life Lessons essay.

By Sally Koslow
Updated April 06, 2009
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Rubber gloves with scrub brush and sponge
Credit: James Baigrie

Real Simple’s Noelle Howey spoke with Sally Koslow about writing, marriage, and how her husband really felt about her honest, humorous take on his dirt-phobic ways. Her essay can be found at the end of the interview.

RS: What inspired you to write this essay?
Sally Koslow: I got the idea after he had the dream I mentioned in the first paragraph of the essay [in which she forgot to properly sanitize a sponge]. My husband and I both work at home now, and as a result we’ve become hyperaware of each other’s habits.

RS: How did your husband react after reading the essay?
Koslow: He thinks I should be burned at the stake. I believe he knows the correct method for building the fire, igniting the match, extinguishing the flames, and disposing of my sad, charred remains. Kidding! I wrote this essay out of self-defense after he criticized me once too often, but it was done with love. Obviously I’m not all that perfect myself.

RS: What’s your writing process?
Koslow: For an essay, I start with an observation and try to get to the place where humor collides with tenderness. I write the first draft fast, then rewrite about 200 times. I also write novels, and that’s different. (Writing fiction is fairly new for me. I spent decades writing for and editing nonfiction for magazines and became editor-in-chief of McCall’s and Lifetime.) I start with a sense of where I hope to end, invent characters, and let them tell me what they will do next. As I write, my characters feel increasingly real. I try to see, hear, and record what’s going on, almost as if I were watching a puppet show.

RS: What are you reading these days?
Koslow: In the past year, I’ve discovered some writers whose books I’ve enjoyed so much that I’ve read them rather slowly, to savor the style. Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar; and Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us were all favorites.

RS: Tell us about your forthcoming book and any other writing projects you have under way.
Koslow: This month my second novel, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, is being published. It’s about love, loss, and relationships―marriage, sisterhood, motherhood, friendship―built on the infrastructure of a mystery, since, as you can deduce from the title, our heroine, Molly Marx, is dead.

I’m also madly working on a third novel. It’s about the complexities of women’s friendships, where self-interest trumps and conflicts with what’s best for another person. Schadenfreude is an important part of the book, along with reflections about changing attitudes and values relating to money, status, and priorities in American culture. See, here’s another essential part of my writing process: I like to announce a project so that I can embarrass myself into actually doing it.

The Late, Lamented Molly Marx is available on amazon.com.

The Essay

This morning my husband announced he’d had a dream about me. A sexual fantasy? Well…no. Actually, a nightmare, in which I had deeply disappointed him. Had I neglected our children? Gained 200 pounds? Run away to Rome with Gabriel Byrne, a predictable yet understandable choice? Unless it was the latter, I decided, I did not want to hear about it―what good can come from such a conversation? But I had no other option.

In dreamland, he had walked into our kitchen and caught me washing the dishes with the sponge relegated, by our system, to wiping up grunge. This cleaning device is, in his mind, one molecule short of the Ebola virus, despite the fact that both of us sterilize it daily on the microwave’s highest setting. Dream Me vehemently denied my odious housekeeping. Dream Him waved the foul object in my face. “You’re lying. I have evidence! The bad sponge has suds on it” were his last words before he woke in a cold sweat.

This nocturnal reverie came as no surprise. I am married to a man who is freakishly obsessed with cleanliness and yet chronically disorganized. After reading the New York Times, he will leave it not only out of order but also with sections crumpled and opened to whatever page last caught his fancy―never, for the record, page one. When he receives junk mail, he reads it, after which the torn envelope and its contents are strewn about, creating multiple piles of rubbish where there once was a conveniently disposable piece. The man rarely shuts the door of a closet, even after he has forgotten to hang his coat in it. Carbon footprints be damned―he always fails to turn off the light or the TV in a room he has exited. I choose not to discuss boxer shorts. And yet when my cleaning isn’t up to his meticulous standards―he notices a dog hair on the rug I’ve just vacuumed―he reacts to my efforts with outrage and has even been known to wrest a vacuum cleaner from my hands to complete the task the “right” way.

Then there’s me. After reading the Times, I reorder its sections, which I daintily fold to prepare the newspaper for future users. I toss junk mail, unopened, into the recycling bin. I close cupboards. Closets, too, which I long ago discovered are handy storage nooks for clothes, which live on hangers. My undergarments land in a lingerie bag―the flowery one for light-colored items, black mesh for darks. And yet my husband says he is the superior housekeeper. Why? Because I fall short in the scrubbing and scouring department, firmly believing that if the area behind the toaster gets sanitized only every six months or so, we will all live another day.

Glass-half-full people might think that our differences would complement each other. Hate to burst their bubble, but our homekeeping styles are often at odds. For example, I love to alphabetize my books and sort my clothes by color, while the big guy knows the best possible method for disinfecting the commode. My husband becomes unhinged at the sight of a poorly washed drinking glass. On the other hand, I barely notice water stains and instead find considerable joy in fluffing and accessorizing. He is an alpha cleaner who has elevated everyday tasks to testosterone-driven, fun-sucking science and can’t understand why I don’t share his fascination. I like a home that is clean and pristine but have no desire to get it that way.

I trace my lack of interest in rigorous cleaning to many joyless hours spent in home economics, a required subject in my Fargo, North Dakota, junior high school. My classmates seemed to have popped out of the womb knowing how to darn and to de-ice, to hem and to hoe. I sprang from a different gene pool. My piecrust was dry; my dirndl skirt, lopsided; and my home-ec grades, middling.

I felt at home once I moved to Manhattan, where the rare woman who wants a hand-sewn dirndl finds a Fräulein to whip it up. But I hadn’t counted on marrying a guy whose feminine side, as expressed through mops and Murphy Oil Soap, would be more highly evolved than my own.

I used to fret about our disconnect―or, rather, how he might feel about it. Then I had an epiphany. It dawned on me that I could either let cleaning become an endless power struggle between my husband and me or―I’m talking to you, Dr. Freud―decide that a sponge is just a sponge. I realized, with a rush of liberation, that in most matters domestic, I will never get it right, and it was time I stopped trying.

I decided to let the chips (literally) fall where they may. While my mate buffs like Snow White, I will set a charming table and artfully arrange objects on the mantel. So be it.

My son and his girlfriend recently started sharing an apartment. I told him to think long and hard about the daily minutiae of living, because deal-breaking habits take root faster than bamboo. You start with “Darling, did you rinse those plates before you put them in the dishwasher?” and before you know it, you’re yelling, “Moron, double-bag the stinking garbage―it’s starting to leak!”

Fortunately, I’m not worried about our son. If he has paid attention to his fatherly role model, he already knows how to concoct a poultice to remove red-wine stains from a marble countertop. And if his girlfriend is as smart as I think she is, she will sit back and let my boy knock himself out. When he gets dishpan hands, she will just smile and perhaps buy him a rich moisturizing lotion.

I will recommend a brand.