Jewish World Review April 10, 2003 / 8 Sivan, 5763

Catherine Seipp

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Consumer Reports

"I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house" | Are good housekeepers morally superior to the sloppy masses? I think so, even though I often fail to live up to my tidy ideals.

I was mightily impressed the other night when a woman I know impulsively invited a bunch of people at an event over for an after-party, as we like to say here in Hollywood.

She could do this because -- despite her slacker/hipster persona -- she keeps her apartment neat as a pin, complete with lingerie washed the good girl way (sudsed by hand, carefully arranged on a drying rack over the tub), rather than tossed in with sheets and towels, as is my sad habit.

Housekeeping remains a compelling subject, at least to women, even if they don't always like to admit it. Case in point: the publishing phenomenon "Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House," a remarkable housekeeping encyclopedia that the website Organized Home called "this century's signal domestic guide" in its spring cleaning package last week.

Ecstatic readers at Amazon describe staying up all night with the book "like a mystery novel," which is something when you consider that what we're talking about here is almost 900 pages of rather small type.

Author Cheryl Mendelson, who spent nine years researching and writing "Home Comforts," states her position with the heretical boldness of Martin Luther nailing those 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door:

"I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house," she writes. "In public an on-and-off lawyer and professor, in private I clean, launder and cook from the hip..."

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Mendelson first began thinking seriously about her secret domestic life when she noticed cold stares and sarcastic comments from other mothers one Halloween several years ago, after she'd spent an hour or two at the sewing machine whipping up a homemade astronaut suit for her young son.

"It was the Mylar fabric more than the actual work involved" that contributed to the rather spectacular effect," Mendelson recalled, still sounding faintly apologetic at the memory."

But this is no clueless, Stepford Wife drudge. Mendelson approaches the subject of housekeeping with the cold logic of a Harvard-educated litigation lawyer (which she was) and the cerebral analysis of a Ph.D. in philosophy (which she is.)

"Home Comforts" combines practical technical step-by-step instruction with beautifully written essays on the theory of housekeeping, steeped in literary references and social theory:

"In 'Bleak House,' the horrible Mrs. Jellyby serenely abandons her family to domestic squalor and confusion while she attends instead to charitable enterprises serving people a continent away," Mendelson writes. "In contrast, Esther Summerson trips about creating comfort and order to the merry jingle of her little basket of housekeeping keys ..."

Mendelson's applies social theorist James Q. Wilson's famous "Broken Windows" idea of urban policing to household mess. Just as Wilson argued that unmended broken window send a message that no one cares and invite criminals to do worse, Mendelson sees even a little household mess as the first step to domestic chaos.

She has a dry wit when it comes to common assumptions about housekeeping, noting in the book how she knows from experience that the people most familiar with boring, repetitive tasks are lawyers. Her frequent deadpan irony, however, has a core of complete seriousness.

"The old rules no longer seem to work," she writes about the current devolution of laundry habits, "and the standard consequence of a breakdown in rules and values has ensued: the youth have become skeptical and nihilistic. They do not believe it is possible to figure it all out. They do not sort their clothes for laundering, and they sneer that sorting makes no difference. But they are wrong."

Mendelson's mastery of the nuts-and-bolts of housekeeping -- including the vanishing arts of sewing, knitting and even embroidery - comes from a childhood spent on a dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania, in an extended family that included two old-fashioned grandmothers.

"I grew up in the 19th-Century," she's fond of saying, and thus soaked up knowledge lost to most women of baby boomer age (Mendelson's own generation) and younger.

"There is such growing ignorance on so many subjects that matter," she added, speaking over the phone from her New York home. As a result, consumers of household products are almost completely at the mercy of advertising.

"Manufacturers grow sloppier and sloppier as they can assume customers don't know any better," Mendelson explained. "My grandmothers didn't go to college but they knew what was in cleaners. People now know to get spot remover, but they don't know why."

She gives as an example of contemporary ignorance the rise in the '80s of the duvet-and-comforter "European bed." Make up your bed in two shakes! is how these things are marketed. But changing a duvet or washing a comforter is really not so easy, so most people just don't do it very often.

This is rather stomach-turning when you think about it, and after reading Mendelson's detailed explanation about why beds should be made up of two easily washed sheets -- "they receive saliva, perspiration (as much as a cup each night), body oils and more intimate fluids, skin flakes" -- you will try hard not to think about it.

An interest in housekeeping is repressed these days, but as with the Victorians and sex, that doesn't mean it's not there. I was surprised to see three five-star reader reviews of the old Peg Bracken classic "I Hate to Housekeep Book" on Amazon, even though it's been out of print for years.

But such is the shame connected with the subject that the housekeeping magazines almost entirely avoid it. Good Housekeeping, which used to have separate departments for "Fashions/Patterns," "Needlework," "Decorating/Studio" and "Institute/Textiles," often fails to run even a single housekeeping article these days.

"They won't touch it," Mendelson said flatly about the traditional housewife magazines. Evidently housekeeping is too much of "a hot potato," as she puts it, for contemporary women.

Cooking and decorating are still allowable topics, Mendelson added, because men cook and men decorate. Anything that's seen as essentially women's work is relegated to a netherworld of untouchably low status.

The gender divide here is indeed profound. Once in a spring cleaning fit, I spent a deeply satisfying two days cleaning and reorganizing my daughter's room when she was out of town. Then when everything was tidy I kept venturing back into the room to open the drawers and surprise myself - ooh-la-la! - with how fresh and unjumbly they were now.

A male friend of mine just rolled his eyes when we had lunch that week and I excitedly recounted my big cleaning adventure, but he added that his wife periodically did pretty much the same thing, to his vast incomprehension.

Cheryl Mendelson's first marriage ended shortly after she encountered three muddy dogs on her unmade bed after a rainstorm, "two of them perfect strangers," and decided she could no longer live that way.

"My first husband felt his dog should have absolute freedom at all times," she explained, so the door to the house was always left ajar, allowing the dog to push its way in and out. Two canine friends were naturally delighted to be invited in out of the rain that day.

"I will always remember the happy faces of those dogs looking up at me from that muddy bed," she recalled.

Her second husband, Edward Mendelson, is a Columbia University professor and first-class breakfast-maker and dishwasher.

"It took a couple of years of explaining that the water had to be quite HOT, that the dishes could SOAK," she noted, but in the end he proved educable.

Housekeeping is really not an area where there is room for moral relativism. There is a right way and a wrong way and attempting to find wriggle room usually ends badly.

After reading "Home Comforts," I was inspired to polish the silver, something I hadn't done for months, which left me with a few very dirty cleaning rags.

I wondered: Do I really have to wash them separately like Cheryl Mendelson says? There weren't enough dirty rags to make a full load, and I needed to wash some other things. As a result, I and my clothes smelled like silver wear polish for a week.

"Oh," Mendelson chuckled comfortably when I told her about this housekeeping misadventure, "I could have told you that."

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JWR contributor Catherine Seipp, who writes the weekly "Cathy's World" column for UPI, is a columnist for Pages, the books magazine and has also written features, commentary and media criticism for Mediaweek, American Journalism Review, Penthouse, Forbes, the Weekly Standard, TV Guide and Reason. Comment by clicking here.

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