Since my husband has been in Detroit for a conference I have made our bed and Zoe’s bed every day, done all the dishes and emptied the dish drainer, and generally kept everything as tidy as if we’re about to have company. (Having guests is usually the main motivation for cleaning our house). I don’t know why I tend to be neater when he’s away. You’d think the combined mess of our whole family when he’s home would provide more incentive to clean, but instead it’s the opposite. Somehow when it’s just me (and Zoe) I feel compelled to keep things nicer. Perhaps I know no one else will be arriving later who might be inclined to help out. Maybe it’s something I can control and feed good about when I can’t control Randy’s absence.

This week’s neatness was also prompted by the work of our cleaning lady on Monday. After she leaves the house looks so lovely that I don’t want anyone to eat, play, or move any objects from their homes. Of course it doesn’t last. But the initial burst of clean definitely gives me an incentive to keep things clean. I always think of the broken windows theory that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about years ago. If an environment is neglected and falling apart (an abandoned building with broken windows) it invites people to contribute to the decay. They tag buildings with graffiti. They dump their trash. So I believe the reverse is true as well. If an environment is clean and welcoming, people want to respect and take care of it. This theory is applied in urban school settings where kids feel little sense of pride or ownership in their broke down schools. It amazes me how much neglect can decay can build on itself.

Randy reported to me last night of his total astonishment during a walking tour of some of Detroit’s destroyed neighborhoods as part of his conference, on using data to improve conditions in communities across the country. He saw entire blocks filled with abandoned, ruined houses, save one where lonely residents sat on the porch in the midst of destruction. He said he saw a site that used to house a factory, now defunct, where people and companies come from surrounding areas to dump their waste. Lovely. I heard recently that not too long ago Detroit had 2 million residents, and it’s now down to 700,000. The jobs left, foreclosures hit, and gone was the capacity to care for the community. More significant manifestation of broken windows theory than just me keeping the kitchen sink clean.