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.

Packing hacks

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 7, 2016

The only perfect bag I ever pack is the carry-on for a France trip, carefully engineered (by me, at my brief zenith) to contain not only clothes but gifts for the entire French family. This is the same bag that gets mixed up in Denver and ends up in Portland because I pick up someone else’s identical bag, a silver bag I somehow feel no one else will purchase but me, even though I’ve made this purchase at Target, which has about 2,000 locations in the U.S. alone.

This bleak scenario (already documented) finds me on a layover in New York, stunned to flip open a suitcase full of brochures and men’s underwear, which then requires a payment of nearly $400 to FedEx for an overnight swap so that my relatives can get their chocolates, scarves and soaps from someplace other than Paris. A shooting star of packing mojo thus becomes an expensive disaster, and I return to default mode.

There’s no explanation for the way I pack, especially as the one beside me uses a simple, infallible equation of socks, tee shirts, shirts, pants and a dopp kit to get himself right where he wants to be every time. What’s so hard about it? You, too, can Google proportions, placement, even best bags for success.

But, each time a trip, short or long, rolls around, I feel myself falling, falling eerily backwards into the mire of organizational rebelliousness, throwing things in at the last minute and then staring at them in disbelief as I arrive at my destination. What was I thinking?

So then, you take a person who is obviously handicapped and give this person a task of moving not once but two times in two years. The first time around, she adjusts by moving slowly, taking an entire month to sort, get rid of and then shove things into boxes, labeling only part of the time whimsically and the rest of the time mostly straightforwardly.

In storage, however, these imperfect boxes get moved into even more imperfect places. She loses her winter shoes two winters in a row, in a place where winter lasts seven months. She begins to forget what the storage unit is storing except for what’s closest to the door. She makes do. Well, there’s beauty in that, right? Who needs anything at all, anyway?

Two years later, she is packing another house up, even as the first house set of contents slumps yet further down in storage. Her single rule for this move: “The better the boxes, the better the packing.” Things devolve. They devolve from a notion of Category to a notion of Location. “Winter clothes” becomes “Winter clothes — guest room.” So there are winter clothes in the entire box line-up. Boxes represent not a portion of a life, but a microcosm of all of a life. Theoretically, she should be able to do a little of everything by unpacking one box.

Why does this happen? Is she missing a gene? She knows all about organized people because she’s read about them. They’re goal oriented, in control, conscientious. They capture, calenderize, prioritize, pare down and prepare. They reap the benefits.

Not surprisingly, in unpacking the giant mound of boxes, things get a little screwball. Some things turn up (“Wow, summer clothes!”) and some things go missing — favorite market basket, a gallon of maple syrup, an engagement ring.  Who cares that she still has the uncanny knack of knowing where everybody else’s stuff is, that this part of her brain is mysteriously functioning at an extremely high level? What about her stuff?

A month later she finds the ring safely stowed in the nightstand, which is one of the first pieces of furniture placed in the house. And even without the Find My Syrup app, the gallon turns up, in the pantry, behind the olive oil, safe and untampered. No one has carefully selected a ring and a gallon of syrup to abscond with, not this time.

All that is left to say is that if Shakespeare were in charge here, this story would take place in Venice. The suitcase, of course, would not be from a discount chain, it would be upholstered and contain a renaissance ring that would somehow get lost even though two people were to have been betrothed on their vacation away. The story would remain in Italy, but domiciles would change, along with roles, alliances and costumes. Someone’s cousin would appear with a mysterious liter of sweet syrup that put everyone to sleep temporarily, but when they woke up, after a few famous soliloquies, the ring would be back on her finger and all would be well — without ever having once exalted organization as one of the great virtues of man- and womankind.