The Zen of Clean

Being a Clean Person isn’t exciting, silly, or fun. But it is satisfying.

Zen and the art of Generation Y cleaning and maintenance
Being a true Clean Person, a person for whom cleaning is respected as a necessary part of a well-lived life, involves a Zen orientation to the repetition of chores.

Photo by LittleBee80/iStock/Thinkstock

A dirty truth, especially for would-be publishers of books on housecleaning: Despite the “innovations” in cleaning products that companies  offer up on a weekly basis, cleanliness almost always comes down to a solution of distilled white vinegar and a fresh rag. To print anything truly new on cleaning at this late date would seem to require the author to aim beyond the glove-and-bucket guidebook—of which many fine examples exist—and to produce something that reflects on the larger whys and wherefores of housekeeping. (The classic example of such a philosophical text is Cheryl Mendelson’s mesmerizing Home Comforts.) What we need of cleaning experts now is not instruction, but inspiration.

In My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha, self-described “Clean Person” Jolie Kerr attempts to deliver both. Kerr’s instruction, though standard-issue, is perfectly sound. But as a Clean Person myself, I worry that the book, packaged as it is in a crisscrossing pattern of adulthood-imposter guilt and faux-rebelliousness, will inspire the urbanish millennials at which it’s aimed to approach cleaning not as an integral part of life, but merely as a curious hobby at which one might play.

Before we get to the missed spots, though, Kerr deserves some credit for the good-faith effort her new book makes to cover the warp and woof of cleaning. At its heart, the book is a familiar kitchen-bathroom-laundry course with a few digressions into elective areas like makeup brush degunking. Classic housekeeping wisdom—like the maxim that one should clean a room from top to bottom, to avoid soiling just-done surfaces—is enthusiastically noted, and Kerr’s acknowledgement that women are the greatest enemy to a clean bathroom, what with all the hair and “doggy-lookin’ magazines everywhere,”  is refreshingly honest and deeply true. All in all, the cleaning guidance in this text will not steer you wrong.

However, after finally discovering Kerr’s rather prosaic solution to the boyfriend barf question (sudsy water and saddle soap), I’m left wondering why you would steer yourself to this book—and not another, more straightforward predecessor—in the first place. Drawing on her “Ask A Clean Person” advice column from the Hairpin (the effervescent diction of which becomes a bit much at book length), Kerr punctuates her basic counsel with the more graphic letters about semen and, of course, vomit, which are fun in their outlandish specificity. But that same quality makes them little more than distracting clutter for anyone who is actually serious about learning to clean. If your boyfriend really barfed in your handbag, it’d be far easier to google “clean up vomit” or to check the index of a standard reference book than to duck and dodge Kerr’s copious exclamation points in search of a plain solution.

If that makes me sound like a killjoy, marvel at how a straightforward fridge-cleaning step like “replace the just-wiped drawers and shelves before reorganizing your food” here becomes “Now you’re ready to put the racks and shelves and drawers back in place and then comes the really, really, really fun part: putting allllllll the foodstuffs back in and organizing them! Wheee! SUCH FUN!!!!!” If it weren’t for all the talk of ejaculate, it would be easy to mistake this book for a kind of kindergarten teacher’s guide—“Clean up! Clean up! Everybody, everywhere!”

What’s weird about the knowing mock-infantilization is how it distracts from Kerr’s refreshingly conservative methods: No Swiffers here, just traditional products and elbow grease, with the occasional conjuring of a Magic Eraser. But that admirable hands-and-knees ethic is totally undermined by Kerr’s incessant coddling. After doing the tough work of clearing our kitchen counters and sink in preparation for a basic weekend wipe-down, for example, we are given an adult cookie: “So as a reward for your hard work, would you care for a cold beer or soda? I bet you would.” In moments like these, I fear that the mixed messages about cleaning that Kerr is sending may cause more messes than she’s helping to clean up.

Here’s the thing: Cleaning can be deeply satisfying, but it is not, like, fun. Pitching housecleaning as some kind of Girls-style dance party seems more likely to produce the kind of absent-minded, deadly cocktails of ammonia and bleach Kerr warns-of-yet-jokes-about than efficient and thorough cleaners. Being a true Clean Person, a person for whom cleaning is respected as a necessary part of a well-lived life, involves a Zen orientation to the repetition of chores. Everyday cleaning tasks are not CrAzY challenges to be overcome, but rather temporary eddies in the ceaseless flow of entropy, the creation of which is simultaneously futile and fulfilling. As any honest Clean Person would tell you, a clean countertop is more Platonic form than reachable goal—even as you finish the final wipe, dust has already begun to settle.

If I wax a bit poetic, it’s only because My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag treats regular cleaning so glibly, as a kind of funny parlor game easily dropped when things get tedious. Moreover, it counts on the appeal of strange catastrophes to draw in the unclean. But here’s what cleaning is: vacuuming yet again the crumbs from the refrigerator seal, scrubbing once more the tub with a little Bon Ami, pouring for the hundredth time a kettle of boiling water down the kitchen drain. In other words, it’s rarely as exciting as handbag barf or a pre-wedding-rehearsal money shot on a shimmery green dress. And even when it is, the solutions are still boringly straightforward—wash, wipe, get him to aim better next time.

For the record, that truth is something you could absolutely have learned—despite Kerr’s subtitle—from Martha Stewart (or any other Older Clean Person for that matter). After all, Martha, like every sexually inclined human, has surely had to coax sex stains from her sheets over the years. If you want to know how she dealt with them on those blissful mornings, just look under the “protein” heading online or in print. She’ll be more than happy to help out. Or stick with Kerr. But either way, you’re not allowed to use (you know, really use) those sheets again until you actually launder them. There’s your inspiration to truly become a Clean Person.  

My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha by Jolie Kerr. Plume.

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