The book that changed my life
  • The book that changed my life

I come from a line of people who do not clean. According to family legend, my grandmother attempted it as a young bride and hated it so much, she took a job as a schoolteacher in order to pay a cleaning woman to come in three days a week. I deeply admire her for this.

Before I grew up and left home, I was taught a few necessary survival skills. I learned how to operate a lawnmower and a vacuum cleaner, how to cook scrambled eggs and bake chocolate chip cookies, how to sew on a button and repair a seam, and how to do the laundry (the punishment following an unfortunate incident involving a crayon forgotten in a pocket). During college, I mastered the art of preparing Kraft macaroni and cheese in a hot pot. I spent lots of time reading Betty Friedan and Virginia Woolf, who taught me that domesticity was a sign of female enslavement. Sometimes, particularly if I was supposed to be writing a paper or something, I would tidy up my room by rounding up dust balls with my bare hands and plucking stray hairs from the carpet.

I never realized that there was any skill involved in washing dishes until the summer I lived in my first apartment and my two roommates banned me from the kitchen sink. Another roommate took it upon himself to teach me how to mop floors. When I lived on my own, I improvised. Things never really got that out of hand because I moved every year or two.

Then, a year ago when I was moving out of yet another apartment, the landlady presented me with a written list of detailed instructions for deep cleaning everything before I left, including the oven, the refrigerator, and the cabinets. It was an astonishing document. It honestly never occurred to me that there were actual procedures for these sorts of things, and that a product exists for the sole purpose of cleaning ovens. It was comforting to know that if I did things a certain way, my oven and refrigerator and cabinets would be clean.

This is a long way of saying I am profoundly grateful for Jolie Kerr’s new book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. Kerr writes a column called Ask a Clean Person, which originated on the Hairpin and has since moved to Jezebel and Deadspin. (I love this tacit acknowledgement, by the way, that dudes should know how to clean, too.) She won my heart back in the Hairpin days when she helped a reader transform her bedroom from a filthy hoarder lair into a livable space suitable for entertaining gentleman callers. She was calm, she was encouraging, she did not judge, and, best of all, she broke the task down into manageable chunks and then guided the reader, step by step, though all of them. It was magnificent! And it worked.

Kerr neatly sums up her philosophy of Clean Personhood in the introduction to My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag: “While it may not sound so fun now, it will be AWESOME the first time you have a disaster and realize that, ‘Wait a minute! I KNOW WHAT TO DO HERE! Oh my God, how did this happen?? THIS IS SO GREAT!'”

And it’s so true! Unpleasant tasks like cleaning are much less daunting once you have a plan and know what to do.

Kerr’s prose, by the way, is full of capital letters and exclamation points. This is OK. When you’re cleaning, you need as much encouragement as possible. She is also slightly bossy. That’s also OK. She’s talking you through a process you never would have figured out on your own. It turns out there is no one cleaning method/product fits all. You wash a wood floor differently from how you wash a linoleum floor and a stainless steel counter differently from a granite one. Sometimes a cleaning product that works on one surface can damage another. (I’m sorry if you already knew this. I didn’t.) Kerr provides handy charts and instructions to prevent inadvertent destruction. Most of the products she recommends are inexpensive and readily available at dollar stores. Some of the cleaning methods she suggest sound downright magical. Like, did you know if you spill red wine on yourself, you can sprinkle ordinary table salt on it, and the salt will absorb all the wine?

But—and here’s the big question—do her methods work?

As it so happened, a perfect opportunity presented itself yesterday morning: our refrigerator had developed a smell so awful that my boyfriend gagged every time he opened the door. It smelled like rancid dairy product, but it was hard to tell where it was coming from. Since I have the weaker gag reflex, the cleaning job was all mine.

Your new best friend
  • Your new best friend

Kerr says to start by removing everything from the fridge and throwing out anything that’s old or past its expiration date. Then you take out the shelves and drawers and soak them in hot water and dish soap, preferably in the bathtub where there’s enough room to fit everything. Then you spritz the walls, ceiling, and floor with a solution of water and white vinegar (Kerr is a strong proponent of white vinegar), scrub with a rag or a nylon-covered Dobie pad, and dry off with paper towels. Then you replace everything and organize your food so you don’t lose things like the container of cottage cheese which, I suspect, was the source of the smell.

Who knows, I might have come up with some of this on my own—well, the part about taking stuff out and throwing away bad food. White vinegar never would have occurred to me, though. I probably would have used some sort of chemical all-purpose cleaner which, Kerr points out, is probably toxic and not something I would want near my food. And I probably would have attempted to wipe down the shelves and drawers with a sponge.

The whole process took about an hour. It was definitely work. But now our refrigerator is a miracle of cleanliness. Several times I have opened the door just so I can gaze upon it in admiration. And I am now an acolyte of the Clean Person. I will do whatever she tells me to, even clean my radiators. (I didn’t even know such a thing was possible.)

The question remains why you should pay $15 for something that already exists on the Internet for free. Several reasons: first and foremost, Kerr deserves any royalties you can kick back her way. Second, if you’re going to be crouched on your knees up to your elbows in dirty water, you are not going to want to keep jumping up and running back to your computer, and you probably don’t want your smartphone around, either. (Plus, those things are hard to operate if you’re wearing rubber gloves.) A book is just a handier information delivery system. I know that I will be using my copy regularly.