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Zen SanitationZen Sanitation

"Master, what is Zen?"
There was a pause. A long pause. Then the master spoke.
"Get back to work, Wilco, or I'll strip your sinuses with detergent!"


I am Roger Wilco. Some know me as the greatest janitor who ever lived. No, really. Okay, fine, some know me as a passable janitor, but there was a time when this was not so. I was restless. Unsatisfied with my studies at Xenon Custodian College (Go Mudskippers!), I sought after bigger things. Loftier thoughts. I was sure there was more to cleaning than mops and brushes. Over one Summer, I looked for a guru. This is the story of what I found.

The Beginning

The old man sat on a hill, under a tree, by a stream. From the directions and description I had been given, I knew this was him, but he wasn't what I expected. He looked like a guru, and certainly smelled like one, but I thought I would find him meditating, or perhaps speaking to a group of fascinated disciples. He was snoozing. I didn't know how to wake a guru, or even if it was right to do so. I waited.
I waited a long time.
I sat down.
I looked for something to eat.
I cleared my throat, and the guru spoke, still looking quite asleep: "Well?"
"Well what?" I replied.
"Well you came here to ask something, so either we sit here all day pretending I'm asleep, or you start talking."
"Uh, where do we start?"
"We start with a question."
"Which question?"
He sighed. "The first one, of course. Out with it!" I thought he seemed awfully impatient, for a guru. But then, I'd never met one before. Perhaps they're all antsy sometimes.
"Is there more to life?", I asked.
"There is always more."
"Is there more to cleaning?"
"More than mops and brushes?"
"Yes!" I said, stunned at hearing my own words from his mouth.
"There you go."
There was a pause. "What?"
He sighed again. "This is going to take some time, I can see. How long do we have?"
"Uh, is this a test?"
"Right. Um. We have ... until the end?"
He smiled. "Good enough. Let's go."

Meaning and Motivation

"Master, why do we clean?"
"What do you think?"
"Well, I clean because they tell me to. I clean because I'm at janitor school."
"Not because it needs to be done? Why are you at janitor school?"
"I think it's my calling. What I'm meant to do."
"But you don't know why? Too bad," he said with a wry half-smile. "We clean because it must be done. And it must be done because things get dirty. Things get dirty because we use them, and we use them because they're cleaner than the alternatives. It's a cycle."
I thought about this for a while. "That's not much of an answer."
"Did you come to me for answers or for reassurance?"
"I came to find out the greater meaning."
"The greater meaning of custodianship?"
"Yes. Why does it matter that things get cleaned?"
"Does it matter?"
I thought about this. It seemed like he just didn't care, but I still thought he knew the answers, and I wanted to get them from him.

Answers and How To Find Them

"Most people who come to me aren't looking for answers. At least, not the kind of answers I give them. They don't know what it's all about. They don't even want to spend time with it, if that turns out to be necessary. Answers won't fill you up - you have to do that yourself."
"Do you mean you won't tell me anything?"
"That's right."
I was disappointed. Not crushed, but unhappy. I thought about looking for another guru. Then I wondered if they were all the same. Then I realised that was stupid, and they must be different in at least some ways. Then I wondered whether the ways they were different would extend to telling me anything, and therefore if it was worth the effort to find someone else.
Then I realised he hadn't stopped talking.
"But that doesn't mean you won't learn something. I will teach you to find the answers yourself. That is the greatest gift and satisfaction you will ever receive."
I brightened. The answers! The greater meaning!
"We begin with mops and brushes."

Mops and Morphic Resonance

"What is a mop, student?"
"A stick, with a mess of ... hairy, wooly stuff on the end."
"No more?"
"I don't think so."
"What if the head is lost? Can the mop be repaired?"
"Probably. I guess."
"Is it still a mop in the meantime?"
"Um ... no?"
"So are you repairing one mop, or making a new one?"
"I don't know. It's probably somewhere in between."

Brushes and the Foundation of Rules

"Now, how hard does a brush need to be, student?"
"Hard enough to scrub the dirt away."
"Can it be too hard?"
"It depends on what's getting scrubbed. We learned all about this last semester in Delicate Surfaces IIa."
"And what did you think about what they taught you?"
"There were too many rules." I failed the DS2 final written exam, but all the practical assessment was easy.
"Did you feel that the rules were built on something more pure?"
"I'm not sure."
"Do you find you know which brush to use, even though you can't say why?"
"The rules are for those who don't have that intuition. You don't need them."
That's not what the Senior Custodians said, I thought to myself.
"Can you see that you don't need them?"
"Yes. I think so."
"Because ... I do just as well without them."
"If you say so. But that answer lacks understanding."
"Am I wrong?"
"No. But you are also not right."
I tried to sort this out in my head. It was like a knot that I couldn't undo.
"But how can that be?"
"Your answer is not incorrect, but there is another one that is better. Find it."
I thought. It hurt a little. Then I found it.
"I know! I don't need the rules because I use them already. Or at least, I use what's under them to see what they are. Even if there isn't a rule for what I'm doing, I can know what to do."
My guru smiled.

Cleaning and Relativity

"Master, what is cleaning?"
"Got a dictionary, have you?"
"Not with me, master."
"Pity. Always makes those questions easier. Tell me, which is cleaner, a plate with food on it, or the same plate after the meal?"
"The first one? With the food?"
"An interesting choice."
"Is it right?"
"Right and wrong comes later. Now tell me why the first plate is cleaner."
"Because ... we don't need to clean it."
"Excellent! You are sharper than first impressions convey."
"So I'm right?"
"Later. Now, which needs cleaning, a floor or the shoe that treads on it?"
I paused a short moment. "Both?"
"But in what order?"
"I think the shoe first."
"Very good. Now, what is cleaner, a pile of dirt, or the same amount of dirt spread out?"
I stopped. Something loosened inside my head. It was like a thin film of dust had been lifted from my eyes, and I saw everything more clearly. What is cleaning? Easy. My guru saw that I had been enlightened.
"You see now?" he asked.
"Yes. I see it all. Except for one thing."
"What is that?"
Now for the really hard question.
"Master, how can I remove black heel marks?"
"Ah!" he exclaimed, and brightened. "At last we get to the interesting stuff!"
--Mokalus of Borg
November 2002

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