Mr. Clean, explain thyself

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, April 4, 2019


It’s spring, and the smell of chemicals is in the air. From a visceral place located deep within baby boomers’ brains (the olfactory bulb of the limbic system), Mr. Clean’s face pops to mind, his smiling eyes, bald head, hoop earrings, crossed arms and fiercely positive demeanor. It’s unclear if they have always been there or I’ve just noticed, but the stars of the universe are his backdrop.

We boomers grew up on all sorts of just plain wrong smells, from Chlorox and Windex to Pine-Sol, Play-Doh and school paste. Because of the instantaneous connection between nose and nostalgia, we might find ourselves gravitating towards these products as the chutes and ladders to our past, a way back to the gumdrop mountains of a simpler time and place, a time when your mother (mine anyway) seemed to be cleaning the house all the time — the windows, the wood floors, the silver, the oven, the curtains.

When I think of my mom in our six-bedroom house listening to Mozart, smoking her first cigarette of the day, probably wearing a sweatshirt with flowers on it, it breaks my heart. She was the most academically inclined of all of us, but never really got to shine that light — mainly because she had kids to raise and a house to clean. Maybe Mr. Clean made her feel like she had male company in the unequivocally female domain of the “domestic engineer,” that ha-ha-not-really-ha first euphemism for the American housewife. Let’s face it, in America cleaning has been a con job — a male advertiser’s heyday — since advertising began.

Consider the live actor on the Mr. Clean TV ads in the 1960s, a man with a mysteriously accented voice, as if he’s just arrived from a distant world, like Shangri-La (James Hilton’s utopian lamasery in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon”). He seems to have at his disposal a vast amount of information and comprehension we simply do not yet have. And because we’ve also grown up watching “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” (two perverse, confoundingly sexist shows about women with magical powers), we’re prone to needing magic from our pantheon of everyday mascots. Gimme the genie in the bottle, please? Not just for life, but more importantly, for cleaning!

Procter & Gamble has today updated the Mr. Clean story on its website with a bizarre short video about an unusual bald baby boy with white eyebrows who arrives on this plane (on the doorstep of foster-parent farmers) actually cleaning (kid you not), here to teach (about cleaning), surpassing the knowledge available in books (with knowledge about cleaning) and eventually able to transmit the ultimate truth (which is All. About. Cleaning.). Of course! His strong, hairless, doughy and ferociously chipper demeanor generate a humility and service as yet unseen in the world of marketing cleanliness. It’s creepy though, as if with a Marvel Comics overhaul you’d get the real goods — the dirt on Mr. Clean. His dark side.

This is what I am thinking about right now, as the spring light streams into rooms, revealing the centillions of dust motes in the air, the film on floorboards and furniture, the schmutz, dirt, grease, grime, gradoo (a word I learned from my southern friend, Angela), and crud on appliances, not to mention the orange cat hair — from a puny, 8-pound around-the-clock factory of it — that can be found in virtually every cubic foot of house as the shedding season begins. (Why does cat hair float — almost fly — does anyone actually know the physics behind it?)

Some of us may have been brainwashed into thinking all we needed was the magic of a strong, chipper and confident fantasy-genie in a bottle (a product originally created to clean ships), but today we can opt for the real superhero of cleaning, a certain Dr. Emmanuel Bronner whose five-generation story, complete with trials, tragedies, brilliant successes, activism, All-One moral teaching, tie-dye, organic and everything-else certification, leaves absolutely nothing to be desired.

“Our cosmic principles define our most important relationships, and guide us in everything we do, from soapmaking to peacemaking — All-One!” Yeah, baby, All-One.

Picking the cake

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, March 1, 2019


Growing up, we didn’t have birthday parties. Not the kind with party hats and streamers and balloons — where you and all your little banshee friends tore up the house while the adults looked on indulgently. I don’t remember going to birthday parties at all, in fact, or having cupcakes at school, let alone helium balloons, which seemed about as farfetched as being in the circus, the only place I knew of where one actually had access to such things.

Years later, when I saw home movies of my daughter Celine’s father, Gary, at the birthday parties his parents threw, I actually felt indignation rising at what was so obviously an utterly impoverished childhood in comparison. The old Super 8 movies showed full-on cowboys and Indians birthday parties, parents laughing, participating in shoot-outs and such. It was the ’60s, OK? Almost baffling in its political incorrectness. Yeah, the adults were busy having their own party: early cocktails, smoking and passing that movie camera around to get the whole thing recorded in the warm flicker of 8mm film.

Looking back, I wondered if the differences could be explained by comparing East Coast to West, or WASP to Catholic families; or if it was simply a matter of the social norms of the time and the neighborhood. We were not by any means impoverished; in fact, I grew up believing we had everything we could ever need. I do remember being able to pick the kind of cake I wanted and my family singing happy birthday, the warmth and light of candles near my face. I remember what a big deal it was to pick that cake.

Nevertheless, fast forward a bunch of years, when I have my own child and find myself getting really worked up about these birthday parties that never seem to stop, one after another, year after year! Six months in advance, I am stressing about themes, colors, activities and the bleeping goodie bags, stuck in the throes of some not-good-feeling complex that has to do with all the parties I now realize I never had. Oh, she’ll have birthday parties, all right; she will have parties she’ll never forget. (Of course, everything is relative. Other kids will have fire trucks and fieldtrips and entire restaurants. But no one will ever say I didn’t put energy into those birthday parties.)

The runaway birthday train probably started with my mom buying a store bought cake for my one-year-old — decorated with four cones filled with frosting — and then putting it in front of her “to see what she’d do.” Whaaaaah? This was a kid who had had zero sugar. Zero. So. By the time she was four, in 1997, I’d boarded that runaway train and strapped myself in. We had the Rocky Mountain Ark over, Melissa Margetts and a bunch of her animals traipsing into the house and all the kids taking turns to hold the baby river otter, the maimed turkey vulture, to herd the chicks, to watch a goat clop through the house with a diaper on. And then came the fawn — without a diaper — scattering pellets on the floor as all the moms watched, transfixed by the scene. Ding-ding! Winner!

Hard to live up to that one, but we tried. We had the rainbow party, the carnival party, the amusement park party, the crafts party (her least favorite) and the solve-a-mystery party. In my mind’s eye, I see my daughter Celine’s little face at each of these events assessing whether she is having fun, whether others are having fun, whether or not everything is fair, whether she feels good at the center of all the attention — or not.

In contrast, I think of her racing home one day at the age of 5 or 6 from her friend’s house — she was wearing a bandana on her head — and breathlessly explained that a group of four of them had been pretending to be poor girls and all they had to eat was a single hardboiled egg and a glass of water each. This ingenious mother (I’ll let you guess which German friend) had given them a lesson of a different kind: how it feels to be grateful for something exceedingly simple when you are not only literally hungry, but hungry from having climbed the highest peaks of the imagination.

In March, my birthday month, I try to feel the sweetness of glowing like the sun for 24 hours, everything and everyone in orbit around me as life fizzes and fusions in the vortex of being human. And I think of all the kids and grown-ups I’ve known (including my own and me), who in a moment of receiving too much lose much of the feeling of enough. Of parents, particularly, trying to meet expectations, exceed expectations, almost as if we are in fear of their being disappointed.

One can always add deer pellets to any party for comic relief! But what we really want for ourselves and our children is that simple, wide-open feeling on your birthday of picking the cake, and then actually getting to eat it, too.