Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Generation clean

Tidiness guide targets millennials, just like Martha Stewart did with their parents

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I love cleaning manuals. In fact, I can often be found curled up on the couch reading one when I should be washing my baseboards.

These handy guides offer practical tips for specific problems. But they also tell us more about everyday life than many history books.

Going back in time, we have the redoubtable Mrs. Beeton, who provided Victorians with encyclopedic amounts of advice, from "sanitary, medical & legal memoranda" to where to seat an archbishop at dinner. Russel and Mary Wright's Guide to Easier Living was the text for mid-century modernists, a bracing burst of post-war optimism with cool hand-drawn illustrations.

My favourite is Home Comforts (1999) by philosopher, lawyer and novelist Cheryl Mendelson. This magisterial manual feels like an ordered return to housekeeping after the overheated 1980s and '90s, when everyone just worked 75 hours a week and ordered high-end takeout.

It seems every generation needs its own cleaning maven. Currently vying for that position is Jolie Kerr, author of My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha.

As you can probably tell from that attention-grabbing title, Kerr has basically written a cleaning manual for millennials. If the characters on Girls had cleaning questions, they would probably check with her. The New York-based Kerr -- who started the Ask a Clean Person column on the website The Hairpin and writes for Jezebel and Deadspin -- has made her name answering questions about how to remove semen stains from bridesmaid's dresses and get bong water out of carpets.

Kerr also deals with the more banal problems of dirty kitchens and messy bathrooms, of course. And she's clearly a smart and committed Clean Person, with sound views on the basics. She takes on Big Dry Cleaning by insisting that you can, with some care, hand-wash silk, wool and cashmere. She loves white vinegar -- who doesn't? -- but she's no ideologue, going for whatever product gets the job done. She is fanatically anti-Swiffer, for instance, but she loves her some Scrubbing Bubbles.

Kerr knows cleanliness, but she also knows about marketing cleanliness. She realizes that her book needs to offer something you can't get from Martha Stewart, the reigning queen of boomer clean.

Well, first off, there's that instructive two-page graph on how to clean sex toys. Kerr lists sub-categories like "Silicone (no motor)" and "Silicone (with motor)," as well as something intriguingly called "CyberSkin."

Kerr also starts with the basic assumption that her 20-something audience knows nothing about cleaning. Nothing. Zip. Take her section on sweeping: "Grab a broom. Sweep the floor. Move all the grunge into a little pile. Sweep the little pile into a dustpan..." This is an excellent argument for high school Home Ec.

Then, there's her whole adorably conflicted approach. As with so many of her generation, Kerr seems ambivalent about adulthood. There's an "Oh, God, I can't believe I'm an actual grownup" undercurrent to much of Kerr's prose, which connects it to those margarita-mommy memoirs and alterna-dad blogs.

Kerr is competent, but she's also apt to sound as if she stumbled into competence by sheer accident. It often seems like she's trying on this whole "having an apartment and having to clean it" thing for fun.

(One revealing sidenote: Though Kerr's book can be relentlessly hipsterish, it also devotes a whole chapter to wedding-related cleaning, including how to look after just-married loot like bone china, silver and linens. Could it be that those cool walk-up apartments in Brooklyn are just temporary stopovers on the way to suburban Connecticut?)

Speaking as she is to a new generation, Kerr can be a bit passive-aggressive about Martha Stewart, who looms over the book like some distant, chilly godmother. "God bless, I love that woman," Kerr writes, "but she can be terribly obtuse at times." She then heads to "the Martha-shaming portion of the proceedings."

Where Martha relies on stern, impersonal didacticism, Kerr goes for bright, breezy cheerleading. Kerr's style is very bloggy, very peppy, involving loads of brackets and exclamation points and an indiscriminate, almost drunken use of ALL CAPS. ("Wheee! SUCH FUN!!!!!" she enthuses after we finish cleaning our grotty fridge.)

When it comes to cleaning, however, the proof is in the results. In a recent essay in Slate, writer Miya Tokamitsu argues that all the "do what you love, love what you do" rhetoric that we see among the young creative classes sounds empowering but actually tends to devalue unlovable labour. And many cleaning tasks are unlovable. They are necessary, important and satisfying, but they are not lovable. Trying to convert cleaning into manic pixie dream girl fun might be novel, but does it work?

Kerr tells us to get down on our hands and knees to clean the floor, for example, but then she has to whimsy it up by calling it "handsies and kneesies." This does not make floor-cleaning better. Actually, it makes it worse.

It could be that Martha's moment, with its impossible aspirational illusions of bourgeois perfection, is over. But Kerr's ideal of housekeeping as endlessly hip, creative self-expression could be just as unattainable.

Kerr's titular cleaning issue -- that barfing boyfriend who loses his (ironically-ingested) boxed wine after a late-night binge -- almost makes cleaning seem glamorous.

But the rest of us, whose vomit-cleaning escapades tend to involve dogs and small children, know when it comes down to it, vomit is vomit. And cleaning is cleaning. And then more cleaning. And then even more cleaning. Any housekeeping manual worth its keep needs to come to terms with that.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 D12

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