It was a typical scenario: me, staring aghast at the ruin that once was my kitchen, and my daughter, Clementine, (brought unwillingly back to the scene of the crime), looking at the same scene and yet seeing nothing wrong. Finally, after listening to me explain how it could be possible that the same foodstuff was not a mess when it was in its original container, yet was a mess when it was on the floor, she spoke up. “I don’t know what you’re making such a big deal about,” she said, her eyes searching the ceiling, perhaps for the otherworldly source of my clearly unjustified displeasure. “It’s only a little mess.”

I turned around to debate her, but she was already gone. And really, what would I have said, anyway? How would I have convinced her that the same mess could be “little” in her view, and “large” in mine? There are some messes, of course, that loom large in everyone’s opinion: Katrina. Prince William Sound. That time you thought the lid was on the blender. Then there are the ones that exist in a more shadowy grey area. I might think your wallet is a “mess” because the pictures aren’t in chronological order, but that’s okay: it’s not my mess. (Although, if you leave your wallet on the bar while you go to the bathroom, I might just rearrange the photos for you. And snicker at your old college ID photo—what a magnificent mullet!).

Really, though, what I think it comes down to is this: there are big messes, there are little messes, and then, in a category all their own, there are other peoples’ messes. And when it comes to having to clean any of those messes up, the largest, by far, will always be the third category: other peoples’ messes.

It doesn’t matter how “small” the mess allegedly is: if you didn’t make it, and yet are the one stuck with cleaning it, it will always be too large. That’s what I had tried—and failed—to get across to Clementine while I was cleaning up the hot sauce she had spilled on the box of cassette tapes I keep stored under a cabinet in my kitchen. (No, I don’t currently own a cassette player. No, I don’t have plans to buy one anytime in the near future. And no, I don’t think it’s time to throw my cassette tapes away: long live the 80s.) It didn’t matter that it was “only” half a bottle. It didn’t matter that “no one ever looked down there, anyway.” What mattered was that it wasn’t my mess, and yet, once again, I was the one stuck with cleaning it up.

Or rather, re-cleaning it up, since she had, supposedly, “cleaned it all up” herself already. Never mind the fact that there was still hot sauce on the front of Mark Knopfler’s guitar. And across Bruce Hornsby’s face. And I’m not even going to mention where it was spilled on Bruce Springsteen. But still, that wasn’t the point (although I bet Bruce will never sing “I’m on Fire” quite the same way again).

The point was that there is just something so immensely wearying about cleaning up a mess that doesn’t belong to you. Of course, sometimes it can be immensely satisfying, too. I think the difference is in whether or not you actually get a chance to volunteer for the position, and what sort of recognition is involved.

Maybe that’s the answer: all I really need is to print up some “This section of floor adopted by Kelly Poe Wilson” stickers, and then, like the volunteers who pick up the trucker bombs along our nation’s highways, I will feel both needed and appreciated.

I think a couple of hundred should do for a start.

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