Taking a Filthy House in Hand

The last two months have been packed with three different batches of visitors, totalling seven adults and two kids. It’s been a lot of fun, but my desire to get on top of the house really fell away from me, round about visitor #1. Although everyone was very helpful and the basics of clean up were maintained just fine, the behinds and underneaths have really suffered.

oh look, kids! a buried treasure! lucky me!

These next few weeks I really need to take the house in hand. I need to be on top of my game, because My Man has finals starting at the end of the month and next month will be a manic wave of packing and moving, we leave here May 18th! A mere 42 days away!!! Holy fuckorama!

Several people have said that if we’re leaving so soon, why bother cleaning now? But when you have two little kids and a man finishing up his law degree, you simply cannot wait till the last week to start the massive cleaning and packing project that is a family move.

Tackling a really filthy house can be daunting, especially at first. Especially with two littles underfoot.

I take it one room at a time, making a first pass over the house where I do a basic picking up of everything, including all corners and underneaths, clearing of stacks on shelves and tables, and a good thorough sweep. This takes at least a week at the pace I can uphold with kids. When I finish that I make another pass (of course having to pick up a week’s worth of detritus first) giving everything a good thorough wiping/moping/scrubbing/dusting– the sort of stuff I usually almost never get to.

This week I have started the ball rolling with a first pass. I have five rooms done, hallelujah! Here’s my tactic for picking up a ridiculously messy room: I put several boxes or baskets in the middle of the room– one for dirty laundry, one for stuff that needs to be put away in other rooms (if your room is really truly ridiculous you might want a basket for each destination, ie: bedroom, kids room, kitchen, etc), one for give away, and a trash can. Then I make my way around the perimeter, on my hands and knees, methodically chucking shit into the respective boxes. I find this much easier than picking things up one at a time and dealing with them, and the chucking is quite satisfying.

caution: this is a frustrating job to do while the kids are in the room, they will pilfer your carefully organized boxes. but, what else are you gonna do? use your precious kid-free time to clean the house?

When I get done picking every single thing up, I take the baskets and put stuff away, then come back for what is usually some epic sweeping.

Ahhh, now doesn’t that look good? It makes me feel literally lighter. Whenever I clean my house like this, I enjoy it so much it makes me wonder why I don’t keep it like this all the time.

Oh, right. Now I remember. Because this serenity lasted all of three hours, and that only because I took the kids out for a walk. By the next day, you couldn’t tell I’d done a damn thing.

Punk Housewife Tip: The Writing on the Walls

My Little Angel just looooves to draw on the wall. Maybe it’s my ‘independent child-rearing’ philosophy (also known as leaving the kids unattended in the other room as much as I can get away with), but at our house it seems to be a simple if/then formula. If there is a crayon (pencil/marker/chalk) anywhere in the bottom 28 inches of our house, then he will find it. If he finds it, then he will use it to draw on the wall.

I have a friend who just rolls with the punches, and lets the house become one big chalkboard. She figures when the kids both top 5 they can paint over everything, and until then, why spend any time worrying or scrubbing? I applaud the surrender, and if we owned our home, I would seriously consider such a tactic. But we rent. That shit don’t float.

After some experimentation I discovered the magic mark-removal method. It’s simple, nothing new or exciting here, but I was excited, and that’s what counts.

  1. Spray marks liberally with pure vinegar
  2. Pour a teaspoon of baking soda onto a wrung out rag
  3. Scrub that SOB till it’s white again

I tried just vinegar, and just baking soda. Neither worked. Gotta mix ’em baby. Maybe it’s the science project foaming action, maybe it’s the grit of the baking soda reaching down into the textured surface of the paint. Whatever it is, it works. It can take some hard scrubbing though, especially pencil marks.

Make sure to add more baking soda as necessary, you want to be able to see a thin sheen of it on the wall. And yes, you do have to follow this treatment with a clean wet rag to wipe all the soda off.

for scale, this is about 18 inches across. and no our walls are not gray, they're white. lighting is everything, so they say.
it takes a good little pile of baking soda, enough to get the grit factor going
this is an uneventful photo, right? unless you want to get your entire security deposit back, then suddenly it becomes very attractive

Dishwashers: Are They Worth It?

dish Jenga

I was rabidly anti-dishwasher for a long time. When we moved into our new house in Alaska, some 8 years ago, I unhooked the dishwasher so we wouldn’t use it (well, actually I unhooked it because it was on the same water line as the ice maker for the fridge, and I wanted to move the fridge out to the garage… Hey, I was coming from a tipi in the woods with no running water or electricity, cut me some slack.) My anti-dishwasher morality went like so: If people don’t have to clean up after themselves, then they are allowed to be distanced from the true consequences of their lives and actions. If I cooked too much and had too many dishes, it was my own fault for having luxurious expectations for my diet, which would be better off simplified anyway. It’s unrealistic in the scope of humanity to expect complicated, feast worthy meals, and baked goodies almost every day.

As you know if you follow this blog, I’ve blessedly grown up and out of this self-righteousness a bit. I still believe all that stuff to be true, but I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to a radical life than just black and white ideals. Like translating them into a practical lifestyle that you can sustain over the long haul, whilst still feeling a part of your community.

The reality of my “radical life” is that I cook almost everything from scratch, and despite my best efforts at a Zen-like refusal, still expect to eat the lush and varied diet of a modern first-world human. This means I make a lot of dishes.

As we got our Alaska house ready to rent before the big move two years ago, we hooked the dishwasher back up. And since it was hooked up, we started using it. I was 6 months pregnant, with a very two year old, busy packing a zillion boxes.

I was a bit smitten.

You just put the dishes in. And…. it…. washes them. For you.

I admit I was a little disappointed when our New Orleans rental house didn’t have a dishwasher. But I buckled back into washing a family’s output most days, with My Man making up the extra.

Until last May.

My MIL is one of those treasured people who remembers what having two small kids is like. This is not necessarily always the case, I’ve found. Many people seem to have blocked it all out. They give me quizical looks when I lament the challenges of my life, as it stands. They seem surprised, and the surprise betrays a judgement. But my MIL, bless her heart, remembers these crazy days and has full empathic sympathy.

So for my birthday last year she bought me a free-standing dishwasher. It’s not plumbed in, instead it has a long hose that attaches to your sink faucet (don’t feel bad, I didn’t know either). This is a great thing if, like us, you are in a rental. And it was only $200. Of course, it’s just a standard, bottom of the line dishwasher, nothing fancy, and not particularly efficient I’d guess.

the beast

Both My Man and I quickly developed a real love/hate relationship with the dishwasher. On the one hand, I sure liked having it wash the dishes for me, a task that had become mind-numbingly difficult in that first, insane year after the second baby. I liked that the counters stayed cleaner too, instead of always piled with dirty dishes on one side and the clean dish Jenga on the other. But I was disappointed at how long it took to load. Like all those modern conveniences I have this feeling like it should remove all burden of work from my shoulders, and I’ll just float free. But of course, no. There’s the rinsing, the bending way the fuck down there to carefully arrange every dish for maximum efficiency. The rearranging when you just want to fit that last one dish in.

But mostly what ticked me off was that my dishes weren’t clean. I mean, maybe 50% of them were truly clean, 40% were reasonable, but not up to my handwashing standards, and the last 10% were ridiculous and needed to be washed again, with a scrubbie and a strong elbow because that filmy white shit was really stuck on. I was often too proud for this, it made me feel like I had been beaten into submission by a mere machine, and I would stubbornly put these filthy looking dishes back into our cupboards because, fuck you mother fucker, I was going to have the last word.

exhibit A
exhibit B
exhibit C

I thought it was our dishwasher at first. Then I started asking around. From what I understand dishwashers used to work, and still do, in some states. Specifically, in the states that haven’t outlawed the high-phosphate detergent. My MIL explained that she would smuggle the illegal kind back from Montana whenever she went, and then cut the Washington approved stuff with it, because otherwise her dishes were as bad as mine. Other people I talked to seemed to have just accepted the double-edged sword of having not very clean dishes, and having to rewash the worst ones.

It seemed to me like dishwashers were just a big dupe, the wool pulled over everyone’s eyes while we kept right on asking for more. But, my life was pretty crazy, as I may have mentioned. I’d take any help I could get, even if it was bad help. So I kept on using.

But, when we got back from Christmas at the MIL’s illegal detergent household, and I opened our cabinet for a glass, I was repulsed. The glasses were almost all covered with The Film. (Since it goes on the dishwasher, but never comes off without hand scrubbing which I seemed to proud to do, it had just multiplied over time. Plus I think that once The Film is on there, it attracts more Film to it, building up with every wash.) I had had it.

I went cold turkey. Fuck that mother fucker once and for all. I worked through the cabinets one sink-full at a time, feeling a new-found joy at the sight of sparkling clean glasses and jars.

All throughout this entire process My Man and I had speculated how much time the dishwasher actually saves. I suspected it was not as much as I wanted it to be, or as much as most people think. Finally a few weeks after making the switch, I was overcome by curiosity. It was time to break out the barely concealed Type A personality and do an experiment.

The Great Dishwasher Experiments

When I was feeling in a good place, and had a Saturday ahead of me for the latter part of my experiment, I started by loading our dirties into the dishwasher. I timed myself loading, in four separate batches, which is about how I would usually do it. It took a little more than a day to fill. Then, recruiting My Man to keep kiddos at bay and allow me an uninterrupted time block, I unloaded that same batch of dirties and hand washed them in the sink.

I know. I know. But aren’t you glad I did? And guess what, due the tarnish of the shocking conclusion by a few inaccuracies, I did it again. And then again.

The first (flawed) experiment yielded this score:

  • dishwasher- 13 minutes
  • handwash- 17 minutes

I was blown away. I had been expecting to be surprised, but this simply couldn’t be right. That it had taken me 13 minutes to load the dishwasher wasn’t too surprising, but a mere 18 minutes to hand wash that enormous pile of dishes?!?!?!

After attacking my scientific method, I had to dispense with such pedestrian techniques as simply watching the clock. I discovered my obnoxiously useful iThing has a stopwatch, and I employed it during my next two experiments.

The other compromise to my results came in the rinsing department. I am a negligent rinser when loading a dishwasher. Another power trip thing. If I’m gonna pick up the dish, hold it under flowing water, and wield a sponge or brush, I might as well just wash that son of a bitch. But, you do have to at least knock the chunks off, and I realized that I had unfairly counted that time with the dishwasher segment, and then put the pre-rinsed dishes straight into the sink for handwashing.

So, round two and three followed, with more accurate results.

  1. dishwasher 7.5/handwash 13.5
  2. dishwasher 6.5/handwash 12

While the first flawed experiment suggested a ratio of 1:1.3 (1 minute of dishwasher loading to a mere 1.3 minutes of handwashing), the second offered a more comforting 1:1.8, and the third almost 1:2.

Phew, dishwashers are at least worth something!

I still find these results shocking though. Not the ratio as much as the actual minutes involved. I mean, even the first 18 minutes to handwash blew my mind, let alone the following 13.5 and then 12?!?!? Before washing that first batch, I told My Man I expected it to take about 40 minutes. That was my, I liked to think, educated guess. I have washed an awful lot of dishes in my life. When I finished and looked at the clock, I couldn’t believe it, I kept rechecking the piece of paper I’d written the start time on, and re-calculating the math.

When I did the handwashing, I consciously didn’t race. I proceeded at my usual pace, though I will admit that is pretty quick. I used to dawdle over dishes, when I was younger, and time was a deep pocket from which I endlessly dipped more than I needed. Nowadays, I do hustle a bit.

What this whole experiment has pointed out to me is, not that dishwashers are useless exactly, but that handwashing dishes only takes an additional 6 minutes a day! That I can wash an enormous load of dishes in 12-17 minutes! Who knew?

Like most women, and even a (very) few men I’ve know, when I wash dishes I also tend to clean the kitchen. They are kind of wrapped up in my mind. I had never taken the time to extricate dishwashing from the whole clear the table/put the leftovers away/scrape the plates/wash the dishes/wipe the counters and stove shebang.

Not to mention that when you have kids, 15 minutes of dishwashing can easily become two hours of trying to get back to the now tepid sink full of dishes in between retrieving snacks, mediating fights, wiping tears, wiping asses, wiping spilled milk and generally cleaning up after the implicit 15 minutes worth of unsupervised play.

None of which that goddamned dishwashing machine helps with one iota.

So. The conclusion. Is saving 6 minutes a day worth a cupboard full of filmy dishes? I’m sure it will depend on the day. In general, for now, I am sticking with handwashing. But I don’t regret having had the dishwasher during that not so long departed Year of Insanity.

For one thing, at the end of a long day (and they are all long) loading the dishwasher sure sounds a hell of a lot more tacklable than washing the dishes. Dishwashers offer the ellusive possibility of easy clean, even if they don’t deliver. If I could just find the right machine, or the right detergent, this time it will be different….

I like what Eric Knutsen and Kelly Coyne say in their book Urban Homestead. After discussing whether the hype about dishwashers being more efficient than handwashing is true, they own up to the fact that either way, they love their dishwasher, “it has saved our marriage more than once, and you’d have to pry it out of our cold, dead fingers.”
Those guys kick ass. I love their candor.
Though I have to add, did any of you read Kelly’s recent post about cleaning a coffee cup stain with baking soda? I hate to say it, but that filthy build up would have never happened in the first place if the cup had been regularly washed in a sink with two hands and a scrubbie.
where all my best thoughts go

Of Houses, Toddler Stools and Spiderwebs

Well friends, I have some exciting news…

No, not that. Hopefully you won’t be hearing that exciting news from me, ever. We hope and intend to keep it to two. Two parents, two hands, two whirling dervishes. It’s simple math. How do you mamas of three survive?! I’d like to know.

No, our exciting news is of the big, boxy, constructed of wood variety. We’re moving! Not far away, and to another rental, but a single! We currently live in a ‘half of a double shotgun,’ New Orleans speak.  Which means a classy, 100 year old duplex. Worse even than a regular duplex, because both sides are completely linear. Seven rooms all in a row, no hallways even (the story is, if all the doors were open, you could shoot a gun straight through without hitting anything). Which means that every room is one wall away from your neighbor. Who is a 50-something confirmed bachelor, not particularly fond of kids, and worst of all works at home. The first year went okay. But… we grew tired of each other.

Funny thing is, he has never complained about the (copious) screaming, he claims he doesn’t hear very well. But what he has always complained about is the running. We have old wood floors, and the sound does really carry. I guess he hears the low vibrating floor sounds better than the high pitched, air-borne banshee screams. But what are you gonna do, right? Kids don’t walk, life is too short. The 3YO has finally learned to “run on her toes” but the 1YO walks as all toddlers I think, bang, bang, bang on his heels.

In August of last year, I suddenly was just over it. I didn’t want to feel the stress of keeping my kids quiet in our own home. And as soon as I realized I wanted to move, I could hardly think about anything else. I was obsessed. I scoured craigslist 4 times a day. We didn’t want to leave the incredibly walk/bike friendly part of town we’re in now, and we didn’t just want to move to another double in hopes of a more understanding neighbor. We needed our own place.

But there wasn’t anything. I mean, not anything. Granted I was looking at a small area, about a mile square. And we have a pretty small budget for a single family home, $1,500 was our top limit. One place came up, soon after I started looking. We applied, but didn’t get it. And then, nothing. For four months!

I had given up. I was resigned by now. We only have another 16 months here. The neighbor’s not that bad. It’s perfectly livable.

But then a friend had a friend! With a house! A single! We’ll be able to run and jump and scream all we want! And it’s not even a shotgun! It has separate bedrooms, that you don’t have to walk through to get to another room! The baby can nap!

Yes, I am a bit excited. It’s just as nice as the place we’re in, though lacking the very old house charm. The location is not quite as ideal, but it’s still perfectly good. It’s about ten blocks away. The yard is a lot bigger. And it has central AC and heat (our current place has window units, loud and obnoxious). The rent is pretty much the same as what we pay now, $1,200, even though it’s a single family home. I think that’s because the neighborhood is slightly lower income. Read: Less pristine white yuppie-ness. Which is good, we’ve always been a bit too trashy for this well-manicured neighborhood. But sadly, as cities go, lower income can also mean less safe. We might have to cut out the night walks.

The only problem with our glorious new digs is that we have to wait till the end of the month to move. Darnitt! I want to move right now.

(Well, okay, the other problem is that it puts me half the distance to the chocolate croissant bakery, La Boulangerie.)

In other news, I’ve been excited to share my latest wood butchering project. A friend here got the Learning Tower for her 14 month old, and I was jealous. It’s basically a large, semi-enclosed stool, so that your little helpers can get up to the counter without fear of falling. When the 3YO was bitty I always just put her up on a chair. She fell a few times, but I didn’t worry too much. For some reason this time I was having a harder time letting go mentally. Maybe it’s because the 1YO is a daredevil. The 3YO was always very adventurous, but she was cautious too. Not this one. He’s a classic boy, I must admit.

Anyway, the Learning Tower looks like a great investment if you’re at the outset of your parenting years. But I just couldn’t pony up the $200 myself. Especially since I had a small stack of scavenged wood under the house (for no particular reason other than that I can’t help myself), and a reasonable amount of building experience under my belt.

This was pretty simple to put together, if you know your way around wood. It took me a couple of hours, and that was with “helpers.” The painting took another hour or more. But I felt it looked a bit too ghetto pre-paint, even for my crude taste.

I decided to make it attach to the counter. In order to be free-standing and stable enough for an adventurous toddler (who would likely grab one side and shake/rock as hard as his little arms could manage, to try to tip it over) it would have to be quite a bit bigger. Also, making wood projects free standing is always harder. You have to make your measurement and cuts perfect, and that’s just not my style. But if you simply attach your slightly wobbly whatever to a stable, stationary thing like a counter, voila!

I happily found some semi-locking hooks and eyes, which work perfectly. I have two sets, one for a station at the counter, and one at the sink, so he can help with the dishes.

I’m quite pleased. It works well, and really cuts down the stress in the kitchen. It’s small enough that it’s not too unreasonable in our little space, especially since we pretty much always had a chair in there before anyway. The 1YO loves it. Unfortunately the 3YO is also quite enamored, there have been a few sadnesses over it already, even though I was careful to stress as we built it that it was his stool.

When I built this, I started out taking a bunch of photos, thinking I would write a How to Do Basic Carpentry for True Beginners post, with this as the project. But as I progressed, trying to think from a true beginner’s standpoint, I realized this project would be a little too complicated if you were really at the point of learning to use a saw and screw gun.

But I really feel that a lot of women have missed out on these basic skills, and they are ever so useful around the home for little projects like this one. If you’re like me, you have trouble learning from a man. I was thinking of maybe doing a tutorial on it, with really in-depth descriptions and photos of how to use the basic tools for a smaller project, like a simple shelf. What do you think?

This would take me quite a bit more time than a regular post. I have seen some tutorials online that work like a class, and cost a small fee. Would anyone be interested in paying $20 or something for an online class like this?

Last order of business is the spiderwebs. Ah, yes.

I have a post-in-progress (post-out-of-progress is more accurate) about kids and messes. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. Remember the cute story about the 3YO asking if I was the “Cleaner” and proclaiming herself the “Messmaker?” She used to occasionally throw everything on the floor for fun. Not too bad. Well, since I started my Cleaning Obsession, she picked up the pace a bit. Then a few weeks ago I made the fatal mistake of yelling at her for it, laying on a big, dramatic guilt trip and generally making a scene. Aha. A whole new game.

This is the kind of Little Bit I’ve got, anyone else blessed with this kind?

Even as I yelled at her, I knew I would regret it. And regret it I have, man oh man. She started doing it every couple of days. And when I say she throws everything on the floor, I mean everything. She often does it right after I’ve finished cleaning the house. Making null and void my hour of picking up in a mere 6 minutes.

In an attempt to get at the root cause, I took our big bags of recycling out from under the house the other day and set them in the backyard. I gave her the green flag to throw them around, and she did, but there was no glee in it. The point is to be bad mama. What fun is sanctioned chaos?

But the spiderwebs. I’m not sure why I told the above story, they are related in my brain. But is it because making spiderwebs provides a healthy release for chaos, or because it drives me almost as insane as the throw-everything-on-the-floor game?

Spiderweb making is something she started ages ago, after a Curious George episode. It’s probably hugely educational, challenging one’s physical and mental dexterity. And that’s why I’ve let her continue it as a semi-regular habit. That and the fact that she adores it.

The web construction goes like so, I give her a ball of string and she winds, hooks and twists it around over under and through everything in the room/house/yard/whole fucking world.

Don’t forget now that our house has no hallways, and you have to walk through every room to get to any other room. Talk about claustrophobic. Yeesh.

I’m not sure I can exactly recommend this to you other mamas out there. But I feel like I can’t not recommend it either, it’s such an infuriatingly healthy little excersize. Maybe if you start out with a rule about spiderwebs in the yard only, you’ll do better than I, who has learned by experience what it’s like to be a fly.

Then again, what the hell am I doing??? Stop making messes you damned curious, inquisitive, passionate little monsters. Can’t you go watch TV?

1R/D to a Clean House!

I’ve been meaning to give you an update about my new 1 Room a Day to a Clean House plan, and now seems as good a time as any. I have a fat list of blog subjects in my line-up, but cleaning is what I’m doing right now.

So, to refresh, the 1R/D plan goes like this: 6 rooms in our house, 6 days in a week and on the 7th I rest. The room of the day gets scrubbed up shiny. All the usual picking up and sweeping, but then I take it a step or two further– mopping, wiping dust off the mantles, cleaning windows, dealing with accumulated clutterdrifts. This doesn’t mean I completely disregard the rest of the house mind you. There’s still the daily dishes, laundry, and picking up toys. But the rest of the house I keep just above board. The room of the day gets to sparkle.

Certainly the 1R/D Plan not for everyone, and who knows really if it will turn out to be for me, in the long run. But at the outset, I have to say I kind of like it.

I like that the house stays pretty clean. It’s not the kind of clean anyone would notice. There’s still toys strewn hither and yon. Dishes piled by the sink. Laundry baskets in various states. It doesn’t particularly look clean. But it doesn’t bombard you with dirty either. And to me, based on my past record, if it’s not filthy, it’s clean.

And because it’s generally clean-ish, I can put an hour or two into cleaning and see a clean room! It’s so satisfying!

I like the 1R/D plan because my house is cleaner, but the reason I think it might actually stick is because it’s freeing.

I know not everybody feels this way, but I do well with the focus/disregard angle. It feels easier to me not to have to think about every room all at once. One room at a time. ‘The bathroom sink has toothpaste spooge? Who cares, it’s Monday. I don’t have to clean the bathroom until Wednesday.’ It’s a way to let go. It’s like making a list so that I can release my mental grip on everything I need to do. (Except that after releasing my mental grip I always lose my lists. That’s the weird kind of person I am. Anal enough to write a list, but not anal enough to remember where the hell I wrote it…)

I was curious how this One Day at a Time Program would handle the inevitable spills off the wagon. I had missed a day or two here and there already, and found it not a problem. I just catch that room next time around. I mean I only used to do this kind of cleaning twice a year, so even if I only get it once every two weeks, we’ve come a loooong way baby.

After almost two weeks of The Sick House in which I was lucky just to keep on top of the pukey laundry, I have the real test I was unknowingly hoping for.

And I have to say I feel a bit better about heading into the next week with a sort of a plan of attack. We’ll see how it goes, but after two days of general clutter-control, underneath the house isn’t looking so bad. I feel quite optimistic.

Master or Slave?

I was going to title this post “Master of My Domain” but honestly, part of me has been wondering who the hell had this big Clean House idea anyway, because shit is this some work!

My house is clean. Not immaculate, but pretty darned clean, even in the unders and behinds. It’s been more or less clean for about a week, but the upkeep takes all my spare moments, and then some. Including, significantly, those moments where I’m just dog tired and want to take a load off. On top of the upkeep, even though I feel like I am “done” with the deep cleaning, every day I seem to think of something else that I haven’t gotten yet, and had somehow told myself I didn’t need to get. But then I can’t stand to have the house clean except that one stupid little projects, so, okay I’ll clean under My Man’s desk/wipe down the weird brown drool in the freezer/move the kitchen cabinet and clean underneath because what is that rotten smell whenever the heat comes on and blows under there anyway…?

At first I thought I was just taking a long time to truly finish up, but a couple of days ago I realized there will probably always be something. Every day will have a “project” in addition to the hours it takes to keep all the toys picked up, floors swept and vacuumed, counters wiped, clothes washed/hung/folded/put away, every. single. god. damned. day. Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous. It’s not driving me crazy yet, I’m still high on the thrill of having a clean house. But christ, when the buzz wears off, I fear the sloven I will revert to.

The only reason I’ve been able to clean and keep clean in the first place is that everything else is going kind of easy right now. The Babe (dang, Toddler now?) has really hit his stride lately, advanced to where he can truly interact with his environment, and is therefore soooooo much easier to keep pleased. The 3YO has been easy for awhile now (knock on wood) and can happily play solo for hours on end. She was playing with just her hands today for 25 minutes, some elaborate pretend, rife with dialog. Don’t get me wrong, they are both every bit the passionate, opinionated, feisty little bites they always have been. They just seem to be getting what they need and want lately, and it shows.

To really spoil me, My Man had another 5 days off of school after we got back from our trip, in which I was a Tasmanian devil of rags and hot water. And even since he started back, it’s the begining of the semester and life is easy.

Breaking point or no, I truly don’t think I would have been capable of this sort of Filth Recovery in November, or really any other month since The Second was born. Until now. All the forces converged, and my house is clean and it’s great, and I’m proud and cleaning house is so much more satisfying when you have a clean house at the end of the day, yaddah, yaddah.

But nevertheless. Seriously? This is how much work it takes to keep a clean house? Day in and day out? There can only be one word to sum it up, sorry to any tender ears out there.

Fuck.

I don’t know if I have it in me.

I want to have it in me, I really do. I want to have a home clean enough that it’s relaxing and inviting. I want my kids to grow up in a reasonably clean space, where the tables have space for a coloring book, and floors for rolling around. I want them to grow up thinking that people put things away when they are done, generally, instead of leaving them in piles to fester for weeks or months to come.

So, in an attempt to make cleaning the house a bit more efficient, I’ve devised a small plan. Conveniently, we have six rooms in our house, just as there are six days in a week (minus Saturdays, which are my day off, not to be used for cleaning). My idea is to give every room a good clean once a week. This won’t keep my whole house spotless, but I never asked for that. I’ll start at the front on Sundays, and work my way back. The bedroom is an easy one, so I’ll use that day to catch up on laundry, which I’ve been known to leave clean in the basket for weeks at a time.

I don’t know how I will like this. I am a hopeless creature of habit, but have never been a creature of scheduling. We’ll see. I just want a way to streamline the whole caper, so I’m not feeling like I’m cleaning the entire house every day. My efforts will be concentrated for maximum punch. One room at a time, right. A 6 Step Program?

I’ll keep you updated.

I posted Someone Has to Wear the Apron over at Homegrown yesterday, and after I did it, I felt a bit awkward. Homegrown is all about gardening, homecooking, preserving, crafting and other DIY goodness. Suddenly my post on cleaning the house seemed so very prosaic. But as unfashionable as it may be, life is a messy business, and someone really does have to wear the apron. Every DIY exploit ends in someone cleaning up. In fact almost everything that’s good in life ends with cleaning. Without a doubt topping the list of messy business? Kids. God love ’em.

A few months back the 3YO said to me, out of the blue one day,

“Mama, are you the cleaner?”

I laughed humorlessly, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Oh. I’ll be the mess maker!” she said joyously and started throwing her crayons on the floor.

The Greenest Clean

The Cleaning is going quite well, thanks for asking. I’m 90% done, at the point where I would normally call it good e-damn-nough and stop. But I told you I was on a terror.

Today in fact is my day to finish. After a morning in my garden, and an afternoon of writing, of course. All in good time, my little pushkins, all in good time.

Since I have had my nose in a bucket of dirty water all week, I thought it might be the perfect moment for me to put my two cents in to the ever-so-fadish world of Green Cleaning.

Because although I do make my own bar soap and laundry detergent, and stock the requisite spray bottle of vinegar and little shakers of baking soda, I want to champion my favorite cleaning products. These are the ones I use every day, and love the best-est. You don’t need to go to the store to get ’em, you don’t need to wonder how they were mined or produced, and the carbon footprint is negligible. These three products are shockingly effective, and far greener than all of the other “green cleaning products,” unchallengeably the greenest clean of all.

  1. Hot water.
  2. Old rag.
  3. Elbow grease.

It’s true these won’t clean everything, but they really do a fine job on most things. For some reason we’ve gotten the idea that there has to be some kind of magic involved in cleaning, some kind of “product.” I’m afraid to say that I think it’s often just a placebo. If you use store bought cleaning products, or a heavy hand with soda and vinegar, do me a favor and tonight when you clean your kitchen, try using plain old hot water. Just try it– no loss. See what you think.

A very convincing case is my dishwasher. I know y’all have been waiting for a report, and here it is. It doesn’t work for shit. I mean, if you clean the dishes before you put them in, or if they just aren’t very dirty in the first place, then yes, they will come out clean. Otherwise, not so much. I still use it, because I am so strapped for time, and already tired of cleaning everything else, but the result is that when you open our cabinet you see a bunch of half filmy, not very appealing for a drink of water, glasses.

Apparently this is partly to do with the detergent. Some states still sell the phosphate detergent that other states have outlawed. My MIL smuggles some back from Montana every time she goes, and cuts it half-and-half with the legal stuff to achieve clean dishes. When she uses just the legal stuff straight up, she says her dishes are almost as filmy as mine, and she’s got a top of the line dishwasher!

And don’t think I’m trying to use green detergent, nope, it’s just the regular stuff (though not the illegal stuff). And I did try using more, the dishes were even filmier.

I find the whole thing funny, since last spring I discovered I could get most of my dishes clean washing them by hand with plain (soap-less) lukewarm water! Much cleaner than all the 40 minutes of whirring and spraying and shushing of my dishwasher. Just goes to show ya what old-fashioned, under-valued elbow grease will do. Wonders, my friend, wonders. (Read more about this base-est of dishwashing in the post Germaphobes and Clean Freaks Look Away Now.)

Very oily messes of course do require soap. And when you’re actually trying to kill something, like mildew or bacteria, a strong vinegar solution makes sense. Baking soda neutralizes odor, I’ve smelled that one at work on stinky water bottles.

So what does this all add up to? I don’t have very set cleaning rituals, as I’ve said, cleaning is just not my gig. And as stated, I’m a filthy beast. But that’s really more to do with lack of cleaning altogether, not a lack of products.

I use baking soda to clean the toilet, vinegar on the shower mildew, and plain old hot water on almost everything else. I did use some vinegar in my mop bucket this past week, because once a year- what the hell. I wipe my kitchen down with plain old water, or the leftovers from a load of dishes. I even wipe my stove down with plain water, unless it’s really greasy, then I use a little dish soap. I have tried baking soda on the stove, it worked fine, but did it work better than water?

In fact half the times I use soda or vinegar, I can’t tell if it’s helping or not. It seems I just do it because I want to be part of the crowd. It’s what all the cool people do. And lord knows, I wanna be cool.

 

Someone Has to Wear the Apron

I used to scorn aprons, and everything they stood for. I thought women wore aprons because they didn’t want to get any real life on their fancy clothes. I thought cleaning was for fetishes. I was against immaculate houses, and when it came down to it, kind of against houses. I used to love how “putting things away” in our tipi just meant turning around. And when we moved into our first real house, I hated how much walking around I had to do to accomplish the same task. Let alone the actual cleaning required for such a space. The miles of floor to sweep and windowsills to wipe, and the whiteness of everything which revealed every little spill. Don’t get me started on vacuuming.

(I’m still annoyed by that prevalent whiteness. Who the hell came up with white for floors? Someone who didn’t clean their own home, I’d bet.)

Make no mistake, I hate cleaning. And as a mom of two, I spend a lot of time at it. I figure I spend two hours a day involved in the prospect of picking up, washing dishes and doing laundry. Note those are just the bare minimums of housekeeping– treading water. This does not a clean house make. While I am busy picking up toys so we can walk through the room, the edges continue to accumulate grime. And need I explain, it’s very discouraging to spend two hours a day cleaning and not have a g*&#*$#ed clean house.

Of course, if I could ever get on top of it, right? Then the same two hours would return the house to an actual clean state every day. I used to think that keeping tidy took less time in the end than being messy. But, being the analytical person that I am, I worked it out mathematically. If I spend five minutes a day sweeping the floor adds up to 35 minutes a week. If I wait, and just sweep it once a week, I can get the job done in 10 minutes, therefore saving myself 25 whole minutes! 25 minutes that I could be blathering on about cleaning!

Lots of things work out like that. If I wash dishes right after use then it’s one use/wash. If I let them pile up on the counter for the day, I may well find a second use for many of them. The morning’s biscuit bowl works quite serviceably for dessert’s cake mixing bowl. See the minute of washing I just saved? It might sound silly, but minutes have never meant near so much to me as they do now.

But, this is not a pro-dirty post. No, quite the opposite. I am just trying to explain my past thoughts to prepare you appropriately for the impact of the following statement: I’ve recently discovered a strange and unexplainable drive to clean.

Shocked? You should be.

It came, like all changes, out of desperation. Round about November is when I started to lose it. I mean, I always wished our house was cleaner, but suddenly I just couldn’t stand it. I looked around and saw the piles of crap everywhere and my head wanted to explode. When I say our house was dirty, I don’t mean just cluttery. I mean piles of crap that hadn’t moved in months, hiding a thick layer of actual filth beneath.

At first I thought I was just going crazy. Why should it suddenly bother me so profoundly? But at some point in November it suddenly hit me that when the Babe had started walking a few months before, he had quadrupled his capacity for destruction, and in doing so had become a full, card-bearing member of the house-dirtying force. Where there had been three dirtyers, now there was four. An increase of 33%! No wonder I felt like I was drowning!

Somehow this little epiphany helped. At least I wasn’t going crazy. But next was figuring out how to even begin to tackle the monumental task ahead.

I do think there is too much cleaning necessary to our lives today. It comes down to the fact that we just have a massive amount of stuff. Closets full of clothes that need washing, bins full of toys to throw on the floor. So my Heroine’s Journey started out with a thorough culling. Not perhaps as ruthless as I might have liked, but enough that I was able to take a deep breath and exhale relief.

There was one closet in particular, the Giant Junk Drawer closet. You know, the repository of all things ambiguous. Also, not coincidentally, one of the 3YOs favorite places to play. Over the course of many months, she had pulled most of the boxes out and emptied their contents onto the floor in front of the closet. Since it was partially hidden by a bench, I had managed to ignore it for some long time. But that time was over. The closet was my first Obstacle.

For some reason, this sudden outburst of cleaning fury just happened to take place at the end of November, when I should have been getting ready for our almost month long trip, and when My Man was extraordinarily busy studying for finals. I meant to just clean the closet. But of course that kind of cleaning makes the house dirtier. You know what I’m talking about. At some point My Man walked into the dining room, surveyed the table strewn with piles and boxes, and the rest of the room and house suffering the neglect of a Mama-Project, and said, “So…. You’re… Cleaning?”

In other words, although the closet was clean, I could hardly stop there. The house was a wreck in the name of cleanliness. It was too late to turn back, I had to keep going.

I tore open another closet, and ravaged the kids toy shelf. Working in my rare spare moments, it took me right up until we had to leave just to complete the purge. I took the boxes to the charity shop the day before we got on the plane.

Needless to say, I left the house anything but clean.

And left a husband to himself for 10 days of finals.

Act 1: Set the scene

Act 2: Reveal the plot.

Act 3: Resolve.

When we returned on Tuesday, the house was a complete disaster. The floor particularly was epic. I left the suitcases in the car, and started right in, hair afire.

I have been cleaning every day in this blessed window of time before My Man’s classes start back up. I am still nowhere near a clean house, but I can see the progress. The laundry piles are diminishing. The corners are slowly revealed and vacuumed of their bunnies. The suitcases have been unpacked all but one. The new toys have been put into the places of the culled toys. And then taken back out and thrown on the floor.

I find myself almost eager to do the work. I have some spark of hope I will be able to maintain, not a clean house, but a decent house. I don’t even aspire to an immaculate house, I like to see the toys of the day on the floor, and projects in process. I love a little clutter– the sign of life in progress– but I cannot, no matter how I try, love a filthy house.

Part of this new found drive and prioritization is yet another step of submission. To the task at hand. I guess it took me 4 years of full-time motherhood to accept that cleaning the house is my job. Not that My Man shouldn’t help (he does), and not that the kids shouldn’t learn to help as well (the eldest is getting there). But that, in the end, cleaning the house is part of keeping a Home, and is therefore inescapably a part of my job as Homemaker. I know it comes with plenty of controversy, but yielding to the realities of my chosen path has been a revelation for me. Cleaning the house is never so unpleasant as when you are pissed to be doing it. Letting go the gritted teeth and relaxing into my work might not make it fun, but it keeps my jaw from aching.

And the apron. Yes, that punked out lovely in the header. What I have come to realize is that aprons originally weren’t to keep the real life off your clothes. Of course. They were to keep the bulk of your clothes cleaner longer, so that you don’t have to do so much laundry. Brilliant.

Sometimes when I need a good boost of kick ass for a daunting cleaning project, I tie that little sweetie on. And think of you, dear reader. Let’s get our aprons dirty.

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us

Let’s get one thing outa the way. There are some Cast Iron Fundamentalists in the world (it takes all kinds), and I am not one of them. I take decent care of my pans, and they serve me decently. With a fundamentalist approach you can reach amazing heights with cast iron. You can slide a frying egg around in it before you’ve even looked at the spatula. I’ve seen these feats with mine own eyes.

My pans are good. In their best times, you can easily loosen and flip a fried egg. But ain’t no sliding goes on in my pans. I just don’t have enough space, patience or spousal support for high maintenence pans.

If you want to create cast iron perfection, better look elsewhere. As with everything else in this space, I am concerned with cast iron for the rest of us.

Notice I specified “in their best times.” Cast iron is very resilient, which is one of the things I like. You can fix it up fast. You can also ruin it fast. And then fix it up fast again. No need to worry one way or t’other.

after scrambled eggs with cheese

 

How to Clean Cast Iron

Let’s start with the big taboo breaker. You know I love me a taboo. Fundamentalists look away.

I sometimes use soap.

Well.

Yes, pretty much everyone who’s anyone knows you’re not supposed to use soap. But one of my favorite things to cook in cast iron is salmon. As you might imagine, it leaves a fine fishy infusion that just, no matter how I tried to fight it off, needed soap. The first time I did it, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, squeezed my eyes shut and squirted away. The fishiness washed off perfectly, then I did a quick season on the stovetop, and my pan was back in business. Now I never hesitate, if I have a real grease-mess pan on my hands, I squirt on the soap. No regrets.

My point is that it’s not so intimidating or exacting as you might have feared. Cast iron is not an all or nothing proposition. There are many shades of gray. Or black, as it were.

Having got that out of the way, in general the less you wash your pan the better. As I explained in the last post, seasoning is a build up of oils. The more aggressively you wash, the more seasoning you strip off. No big deal, just wash as little as you can get away with. If all you did was fry an egg, don’t wash at all. If you fried a nice piece of fish, scrub with soap, then season to replenish.

As for gear, I really recommend a nylon scrub brush for cleaning cast iron. A metal brush takes too much off. Nylon scrubbies work, but whatever you use on your cast irons will get pretty gross looking, what with all the blackened grease, and I prefer to have a long handle between me and the business end. The trouble is finding a brush with stiff enough bristles. I have used a sharp scissor to clip long, floppy bristles shorter and that stiffened ’em up pretty well. But recently I discovered a thing called a “grout brush” which has really thick stiff bristles and works great. It’s even got black bristles, instead of the usual kitchen white, so it looks less gross with the gunk on it.

cast iron gear-- a stiff nylon scrub brush and a pastry brush for oil

(About that gunk– wash your brush every now and then on it’s own, by dripping soap into the bristles and then scrubbing hard against the sink or something to work the soap around. Rinse with lots of hot water. Repeat till clean.)

For the most part cast iron washing will consist of plain hot water and yer trusty scrub brush. If your pan has a decent season, it should be relatively easy to scrub clean. If you have a real problem pan, soak it for a few hours and it should come right off. If the mess is the greasy variety, use soap, as I said.

The absolute best way to clean a pan is to take it immediately to the sink, still hot from use, run water into it, and scrub clean. This gets stuff off before it gets a chance to crust on. Because your pan is still hot, it dries itself off quickly, which is good too. Best of all, next time you want to use your pan, there it is waiting beautifically for you. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, my most common wash happens when I go to use the pan and discover last night’s dinner crust around the edge, ‘cuz I’m just dirty that way. If running a spatula around to knock out chunks is not enough, I put a half inch of water in it and set it on the stove. When the water’s at a rolling boil, I use my cast iron brush to scrub it clean.

Most important is to dry your pan. Don’t ever leave it sitting with water in it, it could rust. (Again, if it does, no tragedy, just scrub as per post #2 and reseason.) Don’t use your kitchen towel to dry cast iron, it will really scum it up. Instead set your pan on a low flame on the stove and set a timer for five minutes. Do not leave the room!!! I refuse to accept responsibility when you practically burn your house down by leaving an empty skillet on high heat and then going to do just one little chore outside. I would never do such a thing. Ahem….

Having warned you thusly, I will confess I only occasionally dry my pans. A well seasoned pan will just have a few beads of water clinging after the wash, which dry fine so long as the pan is left out in the open air…. At home in Cordova I had a pot rack above the stove. I highly recommend this to anyone with the means to make it happen. I love hanging pots and pans. A joy to behold, but also just darned practical. But here I just set the pan back on the stovetop and even there they dry fine.

seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn’t even have beads of water on it.

The key amongst all of this is to pay attention to your pan. Consider it a low maintenence pet, akin to maybe a goldfish. You can ignore it most of the time, but once in a while you do actually have to feed the bugger. In the case of cast iron, this means reseasoning. The oven season that I described in the first post is great for popping yer pan’s cherry on, but for regular upkeep a stovetop quickie is perfectly effective.

Say you’ve made spaghetti sauce in your pan (more on that in the next and last post!), washed it with hot water, and now you notice that rather than the “few beads of water,” the whole inside of the pan is wet. You dry it stovetop, and then it looks… well, dry. A well seasoned pan, even when dry, will have a sheen to it all the way accross. That’s the oil that keeps food from sticking. If your pan looks dry when it’s dry, just add a few drops of oil (really, drops are all it takes, be light), brush it around with a pastry brush, and heat it over low again for five or ten minutes. Need I repeat? Set a timer. Do not leave the room. Smoking oil does not smell pretty.

There. All fixed up and ready to go.

Soap, In All its Dirty Glory

canola soap on the left, olive oil on the right

Whew. This post has been on my list since December. I did in fact make soap during my Crafting Vacation, if you remember. And haven’t you all just been waiting by your computers, breathless with anticipation, to hear the outcome?

My soap making story begins with way too much, but still apparently not enough research.

I was interested in soap for a very different reason than most. I could care less about a luxurious, creamy, fragrant lather in the bath. Whatever gets the job done, so long as it doesn’t burn when I use it my nether reaches, is what I always say. No, ever practical Calamity that I am, I wanted to make bar soap so that I could make my own dish and laundry soap.

(I have to mention here that making your own soap is not really very high on the green/independency list. There are plenty of much bigger fish to fry, as it were. Like sourcing the highest quality foods, and preparing them all from scratch in your own kitchen. Hanging your laundry to dry on a line instead of switching on the electricity hog-from-hell. These things save far more money, and I think, do more for the world than making your own soap.

That said, if you, like me, have already been doing the above for awhile, and you’re feeling restless and like you need some inspiration and new fun stuff in the world of DIY, than soap making can be that. I was surprised to find that it was really fun, and so fascinating. I didn’t know I needed a science project in my life. But apparently, I did.)

It was pretty hard to research this working end of soap making. The internet is flooded with instructions and recipes for ‘luxury blueberry lavender’ soap and ‘espresso cream’ and such, but I just wanted my soap to be economical and hard-working.

I started with Down to Earth’s soap making tutorial. But I didn’t want to add coconut oil, because it’s expensive, and I thought it was just there to make your skin soft, and screw my skin. Also, she uses rice bran oil, and where the hell do you get that? Following her links I found a 100% olive oil recipe, that sounded much better, but still a lot more expensive than it seemed it needed to be. Wouldn’t plain old, cheap canola oil work? How come I couldn’t find any recipes for it? Or even any mention of it? When I plugged it into the Soap Calculator it came up with pretty much the same quantities as the olive oil recipe, but the little chart of soap qualities was mystifying. Could it really have a rating of ‘0’ (with a recommendation of 12-22) for ‘cleansing?’ I tried plugging in the pure olive oil soap and it also rated ‘0’ for cleansing. Hmmmm….

In the end, I decided to make two batches, one pure olive oil, one pure canola. I followed the same recipe for each, except that to the olive batch I added essential oils.

The soap making went fine. Fast, and fun in the science project way. Determining “trace” was a bit tricky, and who knows if I got it right, and what does that do anyway? Are you just speeding up the chemical reactions? Is the idea to mix it just basically until it would be bad for your mixer to keep at it? I mean, can you over mix it? And, if you just let your soap sit long enough, would it do the whole thing on it’s own? How the hell is this working???? But, it all looked good, the canola didn’t seem to take any longer to “trace” though my limited research had suggested it might.

But, a word to the wise. Do not make soap late one night, the day before you are going to have to pack everything up for the flight home, counting on the “after 14 hours remove from mold and cut bars” that you read on a blog. After the prescribed 14 hours, I found my soap nowhere near set up enough to remove. 24 hours later, it was still too soft, but I had to pack it. So, I scooped it out of my MIL’s tupperwares into some plastic lined disposable containers I fished out of the trash. The whole time not knowing at all if this meant my soap was a failure.

A second word to the wise, do not despair! If you have not taken the above advice, and find yourself in a similar situation, it all works out in the end! Your soap was not a failure, it will set up eventually. And scooping half set soap from one container into another makes for an ugly, lumpy and slightly crumbly soap, but if you’re planning to grate it up into dish soap, who cares?

Three weeks later (the minimum recommended “cure” time, again, wtf is going on in there?) I eagerly grated up two bars of soap and had a hilarious new science project.

But haha! You’ll have to tune in next time for the thrilling continuation of this epic story, because I want to hit publish, and this seems like a good time to do it!