It’s not easy being clean

The Thinker by Rodin

I am becoming convinced that only sociopaths truly need to have everything in their house clean and orderly.

Last month I lamented that I am busy turning my home into a house. That process is well underway with no end in sight. It is, frankly, a bit overwhelming. It feels overwhelming despite the evidence that our house was in pretty good shape to sell even before I retired. Most of our rooms are recently painted. There are no major construction projects still needing to be done. Mechanically, things are in working order and seem to be working optimally. After twenty-one years of living in our home, it was finally the sort of house we wanted to live in. So of course we must put it on the market, move somewhere else and start the whole process again!

Since last month there have been all sorts of changes, mostly superficial. It’s mostly superficial because mostly what we have been doing is cleaning, sorting and disposing. The guy at Goodwill receiving is starting to recognize my face. Our trashcan typically overflows on collection day.

But there have been other changes of a more substantive nature. The bathroom in the basement has a new floor, and the sink was ripped out and a new pedestal sink was put in its place. The project included disposing of a dead mouse found in the old vanity and adding new baseboards, not to mention spending about a thousand dollars for a floor guy, plumber and various materials. The exterior of our house, which included significant dirt and mildew, is freshly power washed and shiny. It’s the first time I sprung for such a luxury, and I probably never would have done it had we not planned to sell the house. There is mulch around the trees and bushes for the first time in years. The garden is weeded and mulched as well. We’re creating curb appeal.

As for the inside, much work remains. The ugly carpet in the basement, dirty in spite of a recent professional cleaning and impossible to get out rust stains, will form the pad for the new carpet when it gets installed in during November. First our daughter has to vacate. Her college furniture takes up the family room in the basement, so new carpet must wait. However, the estimator warned us that the new carpet wouldn’t fit under the doors in our basement. Suddenly there was a new project: shaving the underside of ten doors in the basement. This was very daunting without the circular saw I didn’t have. Fortunately, my ex-boss came to the rescue and loaned me her circular saw. Over five hours, with the smoke detector frequently chirping because of all the sawdust in the air, I cleanly trimmed three quarters of an inch off the bottoms of all of them.

All the above though is easy compared with the cleaning kitchen project. We’ve been plugging away at it off and on and every time we thought it was done there turns out to be more to do. I also realized to my embarrassment that in the fifteen years since it was remodeled, we had never really cleaned it, although the floor has been replaced twice.

Oh, the floors, cabinets and countertops have been swept, washed and sanitized many times. But the cabinets were stuffed with crap that had been shoved in them over the years. The refrigerator was rarely cleaned and the coils on the back even more rarely dusted. Our goal was to have a truly clean and decluttered kitchen. After about four weeks of work, it’s nearing that stage. Some touch up items like painting the windowsills will have to wait.

Cleaning the kitchen was at times a truly disgusting experience. Waste goes into a hidden kitchen trashcan you pull out, but of course stuff spills out. Fluids leach down the inside of the cabinet and all sort of crumbs and crap make their way to the back of the cabinet which are hard to see even with the kitchen lights on. There are shelves of stained plastic ware, most that don’t match anything. In them we found sipper cups our daughter used more than twenty years ago and a plate celebrating the bicentennial in 1976.

Cleaning out the pantry was another archeological expedition. It’s amazing how much shelf space you have if you take the time to read the box to see if the product expired. There were items purchased in 2000 still sitting in the pantry! And when was the last time we had cleaned the pantry shelves themselves? That would be never, not once in twenty-one years. Everything came out, was inspected and much of it was discarded. Heavy detergents attempted to clean the shelves and walls. There were ten-year-old ant traps in the corners and small blocks of drywall where someone had snaked telephone wire.

We recently acquired a probably illegal recording of the first episode of the new season of Downton Abbey. Much of life in the abbey centers on the kitchen where the cooking and cleaning never stop. That’s pretty much the way it has to be if you want a truly clean kitchen. Someone could be in our kitchen twenty-four hours a day endlessly sweeping, cleaning, disinfecting and sorting and it would never actually be clean and orderly. At best you create the illusion.

The kitchen is the most egregious example, but each room is similar to it, just smaller in magnitude of effort. It all must be made to look, well, unlived in, so we can present it to some prospects and convince them to take out a thirty-year mortgage to acquire it. That’s so we can pocket the equity in the house and use much of it to buy another one. I can say from experience that whoever cares for this house after we leave will definitely find it both a second job and like having a second child. Keeping it clean, or even just picked up, will be a never-ending task. Good luck with that.

All these years we squirreled away stuff to give our house the appearance of looking reasonably orderly, but it was all just a façade. The engineer in me though likes the idea of complete cleanliness and orderliness. I like a place for everything and everything in its place. In retirement, I thought, I’d finally have the time!

It was my delusion. I hope our house sells quickly and I hope our new home quickly acquires that lived in, somewhat cluttered look quickly. While I dislike the idea it’s apparently what I am capable of. Only the very rich with a large full time staff like those on Downton Abbey can actually live this reality. For the rest of us, it’s best to face it: there is not the time in the day, even in retirement, to maintain this level of orderliness.