Senses of Living® Décor

December 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Until now, I never imagined myself writing a column about cleaning house. I truly dislike cleaning. I dislike it so much that I have either neglected the duty, or hired "professional" cleaners to come in ("professional" is in quotes because in all cases, I realized I knew more about cleaning than these professionals). A recent episode with a new "professional" has inspired me to write this column (and perhaps I'll write an entertaining article about my experiences with other "professionals" sometime in 2005!).

That said, I have to admit that one of my favorite pieces of advice is to "Eat Dirt!" So, in typical style, I'm multitasking and providing (at least) two lessons in one essay. Read on to see the connection!

I need to issue a disclaimer (well, several disclaimers). First, if your cleaning arsenal includes lots of different mass-produced substances (one for windows, one for bathrooms, one for this, one for that), and you believe this is necessary and are unwilling to change, you will find my treatise disappointing (and I find your behavior disappointing for using these toxic chemicals in your home and harming both your family and your planet). Secondly, if your cleaning arsenal includes anything labeled "anti-bacterial," and you are unwilling to abandon it, then you will again find this column disappointing (just as I find this irrational fear of bacteria to be disappointing, and the use of these chemicals responsible for creating "super bacteria" … all for absolutely no legitimate health or scientific reason!). Finally, if a perfectly clean house is your #1 priority, then we are definitely approaching life from very different directions (but call me, and I'll provide you with the name and number of an exceptional therapist!). I will ask, though, that you read this essay to the end to possibly gain a new perspective on all of these issues.

Seriously, I am sometimes incredulous at some of the belief systems regarding bacteria, viruses and just plain ol' dirt! I actually think it may have been a combination of corporate brainwashing, educational inadequacy, medical sloppiness and media irresponsibility that has led much of the current population to be clueless about the biology and health effects of bacteria, viruses and dirt. When I hear about parents demanding that doctors give their sick children antibiotics, I wonder what sort of monsters we have created (both the parents and the bugs able to survive antibiotics); antibiotics (and antibacterials) should only be used as last resorts.

My goal has always been super easy and environmentally friendly cleaning done to an "adequate" or "sufficient" degree (that is, I avoid any attempt at "perfection"). I live alone at this time, so the only people who have to concur with me are my occasional guests (and the cats, but they are the ones who tend to make the apartment "inadequate" and "insufficient," you see). I try to keep food surfaces sanitary, and everything hygienic, but those little mounds of cat hair, the stray sales receipt, the "to be trash" pile that becomes a play ground for the cats, and other less than esthetic items are my real motivation for cleaning. Yes, that's right. I clean for esthetic reasons, and not for health or hygiene reasons! And I'm one of the healthiest and most hygienic people I know!

It's usually best to start with the beginning, and here at Casa Beall, that is a thorough vacuuming (note: if you use throw rugs, pick them up and put them outside to be shaken clean, and be sure to pick up all of the toys, papers, and other things that should NOT go into a vacuum cleaner). I start at one end of my home, and work my way through the entire home, leaving clean floors and rugs behind me, and dirt in front of me! Here are a few hints. Don't let your vacuum bags get too full; that negatively impacts their suction. Check any of the vacuum heads for accumulated "gunk." I'm especially sensitive to this because I deal with cat hair, which gets stuck in the brushes, and must be periodically removed. I also deal with a fair number of dropped leaves from my plants, and leaves have gotten stuck in the hose extensions.

I use a small canister vac (a Dirt Devil) that I obtained in barter from a former colleague. The cool thing about this little vac is that I can actually carry it around as I vacuum. Sure, it has wheels and could roll behind me, but remember: I have cats! If your vacuum air exhaust is directed at the floor when you have cats, guess what? You blow cat hair up in the air. Not cool. "Professional" cleaning people don't understand this, but I'm sure you do. Even if you don't have furry pets, dust and dust bunnies get blown up into the air, only to resettle AFTER you have finished cleaning. This is why I don't like upright vacuums, even though I grew up with those; they tend to just redistribute dirt.

I don't want to encourage you to dash out and buy a new vacuum. If your vacuum works, continue using it. Think about the environmental impact of buying a new vacuum (or any new product). First, natural resources are used in the manufacture and distribution of the item. Secondly, the old vacuum tends to go into a landfill (this impact is lessened if you donate or resell your old vacuum). Thirdly, getting rid of something that works just fine merely feeds into a mindset of materialism and waste.

OK, the entire floor (and perhaps some furniture) has now been vacuumed so you won't be tracking debris as you clean everything else. I usually start with one room and clean it. Because most rooms have the same cleaning requirements, I'm going to give some general overviews, and then return to room-specific guidance.

Let's look at what tools and equipment we might need. I like to have nylon netting (available for pennies a yard from fabric stores), a nylon brush (which I use for scrubbing anything that needs scrubbing because it is soft, efficient and easily cleaned itself), an old toothbrush (or two), lots of old rags and t-shirts (for washing almost every surface; if a piece of clothing gets a hole that is unfixable, turn it into a cleaning rag! There is absolutely no need to EVER buy special "cleaning cloths."), baking soda (this is my not-so-secret weapon!), vinegar (it has a few antibacterial properties, and lots of other qualities that make it valuable), soap (I just use liquid dishwashing soap, preferably lavender-scented), sponge mop (I don't like string mops), buckets (to hold soapy water, big enough for the mop to fit in), broom (no witch jokes, please!), a dust pan (for those easy clean ups), and paper towels (not to replace the rags, but some messes just need to be cleaned and tossed away!).

One tool that I haven't specified yet is "elbow grease." Elbow grease occurs when you put some muscle behind your effort. This was the major tool missing from my recent "professional" encounter. She went through all of the motions of cleaning, but without putting any energy or muscle behind it, nothing gets done. I had specifically pointed out several features requiring mopping. Sure enough, she got everything wet, but didn't get anything clean! When she left, I re-mopped everything, using plenty of elbow grease in addition to soap and water, and ended up with clean shiny floors. That's the formula for mopping anything in your home that needs mopping (you can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil, preferably organic, for a pleasing scent, but I don't because I don't want to overwhelm my cats' olfactory systems).

The rest of the tools don't need to be addressed in detail, but some additional comments are necessary. The first involves baking soda, often available where I live at the price of $1 for three pounds. Such a deal! If you have stubborn, baked on food on your dishes even after soaking, use a good bit of baking soda, a bit of water, and a cloth, piece of nylon netting or an old toothbrush to scrub away the blackened food. Baking soda is great for scrubbing any sink in your home, for scrubbing bath tubs and shower stalls, and for removing assorted other dirt; an old toothbrush will help you get into tight corners. Be sure to rinse or wipe down the surfaces with a wet rag after scrubbing, as baking soda does tend to leave residue. I used to use harsh and toxic abrasives, but now the only abrasive in my home is baking soda; those "other" products can scratch stainless steel sinks and chrome fixtures.

Did I mention that baking soda also freshens? I keep an open box in my refrigerator to absorb odors. If you have carpeting or thick rugs, you can sprinkle baking soda onto them, let it rest for an hour or so to absorb odors, and then vacuum to remove offending smells. Yep, baking soda is a winner!

Do not combine baking soda with our next tool, vinegar, or you'll get a chemical reaction resulting in lots of foam (the star of elementary school science projects featuring volcanoes) which "can" be harnessed to clean and unclog sink drains, but the effects are unreliable, so use trial and error (add baking soda, follow with vinegar, and consider immediately capping the sink so that the foam is forced downward). I have used vinegar (the cheapest you can find in your grocery store, usually in a gallon jug, used straight up, or sometimes diluted) to remove hard water deposits (mostly calcium carbonate) for years. It's great for removing rings from flower vases: just fill up the vase to about ½" of the top with hot water, fill to the rim with vinegar, and let it set for several hours. Rinse, wash with soapy water, and Voila! You have a shiny vase. If you have an odd-shaped item that has hard water build-up, you can soak a wash rag or paper towel in vinegar, and wrap it around the item (like a water faucet); reapplication or readjustment may be necessary to get the vinegar in contact with the hard water deposits, but it is so much safer than so many of those commercial products. Vinegar is also great to get your toilet bowl shiny (pour a couple of cups into the toilet bowl, let it set for a few hours, then add some hard scrubbing with a nylon brush). It's also wonderful to remove hard water deposits from tiles (both kitchen and bathroom); moisten a cloth with vinegar and wipe all surfaces, again employing some elbow grease to get between the towels and into the grout. Vinegar has the benefit of being able to remove some tile and porcelain stains (which usually attach to the hard water deposits) and to sanitize, as vinegar has been shown to have slight antibacterial and antifungal properties, and can kill mildew. Vinegar will also make mirrors and windows shine; most people recommend drying glass with newspapers, as they won't leave little bits of debris that cloth and paper towels tend to leave.

The main problem unique to kitchen cleaning is the presence of cooking grease. I've already mentioned that vinegar has sanitizing properties, so it is often a good idea to do the occasional wipe-down with vinegar after all of the cleaning is done (like washing cabinets to get splatters off). But, vinegar won't help with grease; the chemistry just isn't right. However, a combination of baking soda, dish washing liquid and a little water will do the trick. The baking soda will help physically remove grease from surfaces, while the soap and water will help to emulsify and entrap the grease to keep it from sticking back on the stove or other surface you are cleaning. Sometimes, after marathon cooking, my stove is pretty grungy. I am amazed by how just a little bit of soap and water will clean it to the point of shining.

The last issue I am going to deal with is dusting. Dust accumulates so slowly that I just don't see the need to dust often. When I was a child it was my job every Saturday to dust the entire house; I think I was traumatized. But, there are some general guidelines to dusting. First, forget using a feather duster; they only redistribute dust and don't "collect" it; use a soft cloth of any type. Secondly, don't use aerosol sprays intended to gather dust and polish furniture; instead, use a dry cloth, or add just a little bit of water, again perhaps scented with some organic essential oils; you can wipe down wood surfaces with a bit of mineral oil, but be warned that the oil will build up, and even "catch" dust. Thirdly, if you minimize clutter you will not only make dusting easier, but also make décor that is easier on your psyche. When you dust a surface, remove everything on it, dust the surface thoroughly, and then dust each item individually when you return it to the surface. Yes, that is time-consuming, so the fewer items you have to move, the less time is consumed!

Now that we've moved some dirt around, let's return to eating dirt. What's that about? Bottom line: it's about maximizing health. I alluded to this in my diatribe above about a general lack of awareness about what viruses and bacteria do. Also relevant is a general lack of awareness about how the human body works. The human body has incredible flexibility and potential. That potential is only revealed when it is tested. Every time we get sick, our body responds by creating antibodies to ward off the invading "bug," and to protect from future invasions. That is the theory behind vaccinations: infect the body with a weakened invader, experience minor symptoms (sometimes), and let the body create antibodies to protect against exposure to the real "bug."

In today's society, people are afraid of being sick. We're too busy to be sick (yes, I've said that more than once). We don't want our children to suffer with sickness (understandably). So, we run for antibiotics. Not only do antibiotics NOT work for viral infections, but they also destroy the natural bacteria of our digestive systems (reducing our ability to take in nutrients). As I said above, this over-use of antibiotics also runs the risk of creating "super bugs" that are resistant to antibiotics; we see this effect increasing every day.

The solution? Eat dirt. Those of us who had our childhoods prior to the explosion of home entertainment technology grew up playing outdoors, and without exception, accidentally or intentionally ate our share of dirt. That dirt (with its assortment of bacteria, viruses and fungal spores) contributed to strengthening our immune systems, developing antibodies to all sort of things. These days, I average a cold once every three years (knock wood).

What is my point? A little bit of dirt (inside and outside) is healthy! Don't fixate on absolute cleanliness. Too much cleanliness is UNhealthy! If you let things get a little dirty, don't stress. You'll end up both physically healthier and psychologically healthier. Life is too short to worry about perfection. Eat a little dirt. And LIVE!

And, if you find yourself troubled by anything I've written, take a deep breath and call me at 773.508.9208 or email me. But, right now I'm feeling a bit "under the weather." I need to go eat some more dirt!