Memoir: Clean-up man

My father was raised by a Scottish task-mistress who made him clean the house before he could have fun, and he passed along this mandate to me and my sisters: first you clean, then play.

As a boy, I learned to sanitize toilets, scrub tubs, mop floors, wash dishes, and unlike most people, I loved all of it. My senses got fully engaged in cleaning: the bright colors of liquid detergents, their day-glo packaging, the fizz of granulated toilet cleaners and the famous “scrubbing bubbles,” the exotic odors of floor cleaners–Pine Sol–and my favorite dish detergents? Lemon-scented Joy.

Plugged in as I was to TV, I knew that cleaning was also a virtuous act. Every commercial break showed me earnest seekers of better mops, more sparkling mirrors and bathrooms. At the end of each ad was a smiling adult holding the shame-saving product. And there was certainly shame for those whose cleaning was ineffectual, who left a “ring around the collar.”

Being clean was part of my public brand by age ten. My PeeWee football uniform included a pair of padded pants, and by the end of the week, mine was stained by grass and mud. But thanks to what I picked up from cleanser culture, I used concentrated detergents and hand brushes to magically remove the stains, and my pants shone a brilliant white on game day with a little chlorine bleach in the wash. 

Fortunately, I had the sense to exploit the competitive advantage my uncommon pleasure in cleaning gave. From chores at home, I moved to maintenancing my church as a pre-teen, then washing dishes at summer camps during high school and later at college. At age 25, I started Chicago’s first non-toxic and natural cleaning service (ecocleaning inc.), an enterprise that for the next 20 years supported my growing family, employed dozens of workers, spread benign cleaning technologies through the city and suburbs, and did well by doing good. You could say I somewhat “cleaned up by cleaning up.”

My whole life, I have been that odd compulsive cleaner, but now my weirdness makes historical, neurological sense. My home growing up, you see, had one workaholic parent, one alcoholic, and plenty of chaos. I found as a boy that losing myself in suds was a comforting escape. Things outside my control menaced, but moving repetitively while polishing or dusting, I was master and commander, and breathed easy. Just recently, in the last ten years, researchers have found that cleaning one’s environment has measurable psychological benefits (Hanley et al., 2015), leading to significant and enduring increases in dopamine and serotonin, and thus a robust sense of well-being (Dfarhud et al., 2014). 

Now in my retirement, cleaning is less a compulsion and more of a conscious choice that keeps my home clean, my brain calm, and a few extra dollars in my bank account. Three days a week, during the lunch rush, I work behind the scenes washing dishes at my local Panera. By the end of each shift, I have turned chaos into order and supported my coworkers in the front. What is more, they appreciate my abilities, nicknaming me “The Jesus of Clean.” They remind me of yet another benefit of cleaning: interacting with my fellow humans in a way that yields a “clean conscience.”

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