Coming clean

I clean houses for a living. I have been doing it for seven years now and I am (if I do say so myself) pretty good at it. I work for a smallish local company — so the particulars are all taken care of for me; I never have to trawl for more work or scramble to replace broken equipment, it’s all there for me, reliably provided for.

I fall in and out of love with it, for lots of reasons. At worst, it is a tedious, demeaning thing that may well be accelerating the breakdown of my lungs, and certainly made recovering from knee surgery difficult. There are days where I work like a draft horse to appease people who have unrealistic standards, all to collapse at the end of the day winded and sore.

At best, it is an invaluable opportunity to meet people I would NEVER have a chance to meet and get to know in real life. It is incredibly active, which is a boon in our sedentary age. (If anything I am too muscular; I tell people that cleaning professionally is like getting paid to go to the gym). In houses I’m familiar with I can listen to audiobooks or podcasts, just like I do when I paint, and so there’s a tremendous amount of mental continuity and freedom. I picnic lunch in a public park most days, and when I’m done I’m DONE — it is work you truly leave at work, which for an illustrator is invaluable.


Cleaning, like drawing, puts you at a perpendicular to life, rather than a parallel. You intersect with people at very specific points, but most of your experience (and theirs) is separate. I don’t usually talk about my illustration work with my cleaning clients, because it’s really not relevant to how well I can clean their toilet, and by and large people don’t care about who I am and what I do.

Having said that, I live in a chummy west coast town, so most of the people are friendly and glad to see me. Clients come and go, for myriad reasons, but I always have a handful of dear ones — some new, some I have cleaned for since the beginning.

One of these was the source of the Fennel Story — a delightful home-schooled child.

We’ve gone through many phases over the years. He followed me around when he was three and four and performed a simultaneous “cleaning” with me. When he was five he would start telling me strange things that had me pausing to jot things down in my notebook — the Fennel Story was simply the most cohesive of these. They have only become more elaborate over time. Recently he has been insisting that my cat is building a rocket ship in an underground laboratory with a team of cat-scientists, and he earnestly asks me to set up motion detection cameras to verify this suspicion.

As I don’t tell my cleaning clients about my illustration work, I also try not to talk too much about my day job here, Chez Kumquat, because how I keep afloat need not concern you. (And above all I don’t want to become that cleaner who paints, or that painter who cleans. Cleaning is so NOT my identity, despite what my clients might tell you.) But I have been wrestling with the whole coming clean about day jobs thing for a while now.

So, so many creatives have extracurricular gigs that keep things running, and so, so few of them talk about it, and it paints an incomplete picture. Sets up unrealistic expectations. And, far too often, allows a person to self-sabotage with shame, guilt, and weird ideas about how a person’s art should sustain themselves 100% Or Else They’re Not An Artist. Which is, quite frankly, nonsense.  The only thing that makes you an artist, as David Rakoff says in his delightful rant about the broadway musical RENT, is making art.

(And I say this to you here, because if I do, maybe I’ll start believing it on my bad days, the fingers-sore days when the only thing I draw is a little doodle on my to-do list.)

Furthermore, on a practical level, I don’t talk about my day job because want to protect the privacy of my clients — and in this case I want to protect fantastic mind of this child, whose ideas are his and do not belong to me. I made pictures about the Fennel Story because how could you not, but really the only authorship credit I can take beyond the images were the leading questions — though this cat thing has been closer to a real collaboration, and stems from the (true) notion of my cat loving ping-pong balls.

The perimeters of our imaginative play has changed over time — he once got very angry with me for suggesting wizards might live in the neighborhood. (They have to live somewhere, right?) That is NOT TRUE, he told me. This was just after he had folded himself into the mattress of a futon and laid inert, because he was a taco. (This was when he was six. I wrote in my notebook: “being a taco, yes; wizard neighbors, no.”)

There have been many milestones I have borne witness to. People have children, their children grow. People marry, remarry, get divorced. People go on big once-in-a-lifetime vacations, people travel regularly as a part of life. People remodel parts of their home. People move and take me with them to the new house, and I and the client can deepen our rapport by remembering things about the old place; what is better here, what is missed from there. Our histories become mingled. I have a sort of unearned front row seat at major hinges of life.

A week ago, I hit another one. I went to clean for a client of mine with advanced Parkinson’s. And she never came to the door.

I had to look back at my emails to see how long I’d cleaned for her: five years. In fact I did her very first cleaning for her back in 2011.

It’s a very odd sensation that has settled in. Because in truth I didn’t know her that well, just where our lives intersected.

She was always kind to me, always grateful in an unceremonious way that felt very genuine.

I know she was a bird person but we never really jammed about it; she was never that eager to talk about herself, and I let clients make that call. We talked about film; she was a great connoisseur. I knew things were truly getting bad when she gave me her copy of the PDX Film Festival schedule in February. “I won’t be needing this this year”.

But of course, I also knew from the appearance of the walking stick, the tremors in her voice, the way she’d stagger along with her diagnostic stooping gait. I knew from the in-home help that began to cook for her and leave a mess in the kitchen that she couldn’t clean up after. I knew from the little chair that was placed in the kitchen, for her to sit her reluctant self in when this person came to help. I knew from the little stash of medicinal marijuana that appeared in a little tray behind a few vases on a table against a wall, and the corresponding chart from the dispensary that tried to narrow down what strains can help with what symptoms. (Pain management? Increase appetite? Suppress appetite? Give energy? Reduce energy? Apparently there’s a strain for everything.)

Over time one has a sense of protectiveness over “their” clients — their homes and the things in it, but also their well-being. It pained me to see her in her previous high rise, because it seemed so unsuited to her. Aside from the walkability to all the things she regularly did — volunteering at the library store, attending screenings at the NW Film Center — it was a depressing little box in the heart of the financial district. Somewhat cheaply put together. I didn’t like thinking of her there knowing where she had been before: a fine little historic bungalow in Southeast.

She would complain about her building, which made me even more uneasy. Finally when a large construction project began nearby — and all the potential noise and clatter that would doubtless accompany that — she resolved to move again, and indeed did so so abruptly that she neglected to tell me.

So it wasn’t the first time, this past Friday, that I showed up to a place where she had departed.

Her final home was into a place along a wooded street, overlooking a park, with great big maples out all her windows affording unimpeded views of birds. Some part of me quieted down when she moved in there. It was easier to picture her there, made more sense somehow.

The email we received confirming my suspicions informed us that she went surrounded by her children and her children’s children, which was also a great relief to me. One passion of hers that I knew of — yet knew very little about — was her family. They all visited each other often and for extended visits. I infer she was very close to them.

It was so odd that it happened on April first. I was hired by the company on April 1, 2009, much to the delight of my mother, who still can’t believe the sloppy teenager she raised grew up to clean houses. I kept hoping my client would get back to us so I could tease her for her awful April Fool’s joke.  But I also kind of knew it wasn’t going to happen.

I’ve had only one other elderly client who has died, which is a fairly unlikely track record for seven years, though of course it’s something I always think about. The circumstances were different, my relationship to her was different, and I still clean for her daughter who is about my mother’s age, and helping her through her grief has proved cathartic for me as well.

Explorations down the aural canal


You are apparently not supposed to clean them with Q-tips, not even a little bit, despite the fact that Q-tips look and feel expressly designed for that purpose. (What…are they for then? Can anybody tell me?) My mother did not teach me to clean my ears in any fashion, but neither did she teach me not to, so alas, I do from time to time. What can I say? I have gunky ears, and once had the magical if alarming experience of getting them sort of…douched via turkey baster by a medical professional, and the great wads of sediment that came out of my ears were unlike anything I had ever seen. And I heard clearly for what felt like the first time in my life.

– Speaking of douching: Ears, like vaginas, are self-cleaning organs. No cleaning necessary. Wow! Who knew? And color me surprised and ashamed a little, for not trusting my own body and the nonsense it produces. These things happen for a reason.

What is one to do about the gunk, then, if one has that ears-filled-with-cotton feeling? Place a warm washcloth against your head, over your ear, to allow it to sort of “melt” and “drain” the proper amount. (Which is different for everybody, and depends on how good your system is at fighting disease.)

You can drip in a solution of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and water, but it should be applied via dropper (not Q-tip!) and the solution should be warmed to body temperature, as cold fluid dripped without preamble into the ear canal can cause pain and dizziness. (I had my doubts, but then I thought about Neti Pots, and the various false starts I’ve had with water not QUITE the right temperature, and realized it makes perfect sense. Your tubes. They are not acclimated to climate change.)

You can also just chew your food. According to an article cited by wikipedia: “Cleaning of the ear canal occurs as a result of the “conveyor belt” process of epithelial migration, aided by jaw movement. ” So, just go about your business.

Your eardrums recover if you puncture them, in about a week or two, which I guess makes perfect sense, but to confirm this on WebMD was interesting. I’ve held one of those a since-childhood misconceptions that seem absurd when you examine them with your adult mind but that sticks with you because of the purity of feeling (be that joy or terror) (usually terror) in the original question that led to the formation of the hypothesis. One of these misconceptions was that if you touched the electric cables that go into the ground from a telephone pole, you’ll get a nasty electric shock and probably will die. (This is…almost certainly not true, since the object that inspired this theory was on a playground we would visit on a weekly basis, and the wires were between a distant swing set and a popular slide, and it seems unlikely that EVEN IN TEXAS IN THE 80s a person would build a large playground for children around something so casually lethal. But still to this day I have no idea if its true or not. Touching something to answer the question, “will I die if I touch this?” is not something even my four year old self would have dreamed of doing, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I can live with the uncertainty.)

Another one of these theories? You Only Get One Pair Of Eardrums, And If You Puncture Them, That’s It. Gone Forever. Deafness.

While the body can fail us in many ways, a fit body has a delightful way of healing superficial abrasions, and so it’s neat to learn that “perforation of eardrums” — as it is officially called —  is fairly trivial so long as you don’t, I guess, try for a morsel of inner ear at the same time.

That there are several kinds of “ear infection”. They are impossible to accurately diagnose without a visit to the doctor. I haven’t done that yet, because the folk treatment of warm garlic oil and the washcloth thing helped enough — far better than even ibuprofen. I remain keenly aware of my ear canal, but I can chew food again and can look over my shoulder without needing to fight the urge to meltdown like a toddler with the same affliction.

Q-tips (or cotton swabs to use the non-branded name, though not nearly as vivid to the North American mind,) were originally called “Baby Gays”. They were invented provisionally in 1920 by a woman named Ziuta Gerstenzang, who wrapped cotton wool around the end of a toothpick for what purpose? CLEANING THE BABY’S EARS.

Leo Z. Gerstenzang, her husband, is the man who witnessed this miracle and who took the idea, manufactured an object, and produced it for mass consumption, so his name credited for “inventing” them, but really, isn’t he just the production guy? Who was dealing with the baby’s nooks and crannies, who was fretting over filth lurking deep in the baby’s dark crevices, who saw the toothpick and had the flash of inspiration to use it in a way that would confound doctors many decades later? That would be Ziuta Gerstenzang, and not her husband, thank you very much.

(Note: even the “official” version of this origin story is apocryphal, but L.Z. Gerstenzang IS credited with inventing Baby Gays, that much we know. There are numerous anecdotes, and all of the ones I read were along the lines of “he got the idea from his wife”. PRETTY SURE THAT MEANS THE WIFE IS THE INVENTOR, but thanks for the Assertion of Patriarchy, o authors of history.)

Improper use of Q-tips is one of the chief causes of impacted earwax, which leads to one of the various ear infections, and is suspected to be the reason children get so many.  Nervous parents, like the good Ms. Gerstenzang, wanting the best for their off-spring and in so doing causing them more harm.

– Again according to Wikipedia, anthropologists have used earwax to track human migratory patterns! Apparently east Asians and native Americans tend to have “dry type”, which is grey and flaky, and very different from what Africans and Europeans often have, which is the brownish wet stuff. Wet-wax peoples also tend to have more sweat production and body oder, yay us. May or may not have to do with the grey-wax folks historically living in very cold places, where sweat is fairly moot. And I suspect frozen earwax would be intolerable.



Since about April I have rejoined the ranks of full-time glasses-wearers, after fifteen years of religious contact wearing.

To back up: I have lived in corrective lenses since the second grade, and went to contacts as soon as they would let me. Before that I had worn godawful metal 1980s frames that were the crowning jewel at the height of my awkward phase.

Look! We all have the same glasses.  Look! We all have the same glasses.

The switch from these frames (i.e., horrifying bug-eyed goofball,) to contacts (i.e., super-stud,) was, to me, as transformative as cutting my hair to a pixie cut in high school. Finally! I look like ME! I’ll never look back, I thought. I will wear contacts for the rest of my life.

A year or so ago my eyes started to reject my contacts with a suddenness and ferocity that I found astonishing. Before this I could wear my lenses for 14 straight hours without incident. Now I could barely keep them in for three before my eyes would cloud over, tear profusely, itch, and generally be useless to me. A few times it was nearly impossible to GET THE LENSES OFF MY EYEBALLS, which is the stuff of nightmares. Once it happened while I was trying a new brand at the eye doctor’s, and she had to get them out for me. The suction achieved by these lenses — and sound they made as they let go — was a real eye-opener. So to speak.

Added to this, contacts are just an unnecessary periodic expense, especially when you’re hopping around trying different brands and getting special eyedrops from the eye doctor. I took it all as a sign that my eyes no longer wanted to wear contact lenses, and not without a great feeling a defeat and resignation, I acquiesced. Glasses it would be.

The severity of my myopia is presumably inherited from my father, who, when told he had “gone beyond the top drawer” at his eye doctor’s opted to get laser surgery back when it was in its somewhat experimental (and risky). They didn’t set out to completely cure him, they merely wanted to push his vision back down into the realm of correctability. So he wears glasses to this day, but they are but thin whispers of what once was.

I am not currently acquainted with anyone whose vision is worse than mine. (Except for a friend who is blind.) When I purchase frames online I am subject to additional “high prescription” fees which I assume pays the giants who have to use their giant hands and giant muscles to press the lenses down into a thin enough shape so I don’t end up looking like Professor Farnsworth.

This whole thing is a major downer for a person who SEES things for a living, and one of the reasons I was so drawn to contacts — aside for vain aesthetic reasons — was the total correction of the entire field of vision. I use all of it, and I detest having a border of illegibility surrounding my world, as many interesting things in life are seen by chance, at random, out of the corner of one’s eye. I don’t have corners — anything outside of the frame is a colorful blur.

Because glasses are so in vogue — I think American Apparel actually sells empty frames now, which kills me — it is at least fairly easy to order them online, which is great because most of the shops these days exclusively carry the giant 1980s era throwbacks, and I just can’t bring myself to go there just yet. I don’t hang out with anyone regularly from my contacts-only days, so nobody has made a big deal about my quiet shift to Always Glasses. I suppose I just look like yet another bespectacled young person in plaid. Fashionable on accident. When glasses go out of style it will just be me and the actually afflicted, our eyes a refracted mess to the people we’re talking to, our worlds framed in tiny parenthesis of clarity.