As any of you who’ve been to visit can attest, I am a consummate slob. I’ve always been this way, and it might be partially genetic. I also attribute it to my mother’s Sisyphian take on housekeeping: It’s an arduous, all-day, everyday task, not unlike working in the diamond mines in South Africa. The vacuum cleaner was just another piece of furniture in the living room. The bathroom sink was the permanent repository for rubber gloves. You could outfit a plaid flannel army with my father’s shirts that sat waiting to be ironed.

“But you’re a Virgo,” people would say. “I thought Virgos were supposed to be anal retentively neat.”

“I’m a discouraged perfectionist,” I’d reply.

My ultrafastidious friend Dan convinced me to purchase a copy of Home Comforts, which is subtitled “The Art and Science of Keeping House.” It weighs in at 5 pounds and runs just under 900 pages. Cheryl Mendolsohn, a PhD and lawyer, wrote it in order to fill a certain niche: the housekeeping book that treats housekeeping as an art, not a chore. In florid prose, she covers literally everything someone with nothing else to do would need to keep one’s house spotless: from fabrics and wood to kitchen safety and operating-room levels of cleanliness; from bed making and stain removal to window-washing and domestic employment laws. Really, it’s all in there, as the 45-page Acknowledgements and Index will attest. Gravy stains on your shantung drapes? Check. How to make cloth rags? Check. How to store your leather gloves? Check.

Now, why Dan would need such a book is beyond me. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who washes all his groceries when he gets home from the store. Not the produce–the glass and plastic containers. “You never know who’s touched them,” he tsk’d me.

(It turns out he was right, because the next time I went grocery shopping, I did witness two drunken, homeless gentlemen stuffing steaks down their pants and relieving themselves on the pickle jars.)

I finally bought my copy of “Home Comforts” about five years ago. It initially inspired me to embrace the art of “keeping house.”

First I was charmed by the twee little illustrations of how to sweep a floor (p. 459). But then, to my vexation, Mendelsohn goes on to describing the proper way to clean linoleum (p. 507):

Some people will be unhappy to hear that I prefer to wash kitchen and bathroom floors on my hands and knees, using a piece of thin, old terry cloth to scrub with, and washing the baseboards as I go. Unless you have extremely large floor areas to cope with, however, hand-washing the floors is just as easy as mopping–easier, in my opinion. It unquestionably gets the floors far cleaaner. Those with knee or other joint troubles should not try this….You may find that this is actually fast and that you like both the results and the exercise.

Fascinating as this passage was, I soon discovered that although it was interesting pretending to be a chorewoman, the results weren’t nearly as rewarding as Mendolsohn promises. In fact, when you live in a Brooklyn basement studio with linoleum that dates back to the Eisenhower administration, you quickly discover that there is only so far you can get–you hit a grimy, scuffed glass ceiling, as it were.

Soon I took to reading “Home Comforts” instead of cleaning, generally with a cigarette and a glass of red wine. I felt like that character in Metropolitan:I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. Ergo: Why clean your house when you can read about it?

My copy of “Home Comforts” has sat disused under my coffee table for several years now, though I have referred to it for helpful stain removal tips and, occasionally, to meditate. There were certain things about the book that chafed me: For one, Mendolsohn insists that vinegar will not clean surfaces, which I don’t believe. She advocates bathing your cat once a week. (I can only assume she doesn’t have one.) Also, she says that one must air out one’s bedsheets for an entire hour before making the bed. I’m not even awake for an hour before I leave for work. (This, of course, is the reason I don’t ever make the bed, of course: I wouldn’t want the germs to get trapped inside.)

A couple weeks ago I got an email invitation from the New Yorker: Come to the Williams-Sonoma in Columbus Circle to have cocktails and hear Cheryl Mendolsohn read from “Home Comforts.” Even if they weren’t offering free drinks, I still would have gone, because I have never been to an upscale housewares store for a reading. And I thought it might be interesting to see who all else RSVP’d.

I dragged Maud along with me. We got there early and thus had to feign interest in festive summer place settings while the caterers were still stocking the bar. “Eight dollars isn’t bad for an egg cup,” I mused, but thought better of buying it, because it would probably relegated to use as an ashtray.

The people began to trickle in. There were a lot of ladies of a Certain Age with skijump noses, a few handsome “bachelor” types, and one middleaged fanboy. The pinot grigio started flowing.

Five minutes before the reading was to begin, someone sent a French country soup tureen crashing to the floor. “Jesus,” the PR man cried, “How much is that gonna cost?”

Finally, Mendolsohn arrived (looking, I might add, exactly as she did in her jacket photo–kudos to her for that) and the PR guy ran up to the microphone and introduced her as though she had invented the artificial heart. “Without her,” he effused, “How would we know how to iron our sheets?”

“Where would I be if I didn’t know how to iron my sheets,” Maud muttered.

Mendolsohn spoke extemporaneously most of the evening, with a carriage and delivery she almost certainly learned in law school. She brought with her a tall stack of housekeeping books that dated back 150 years. She bemoaned the devolution of these texts, explaining that her grandmothers, who kept their houses spotless and taught her everything she knows about the Art of Keeping House, had a sense of pride about their domestic work that was absent from all manuals published post-WWII.

I admit I liked her. She answered questions from the audience in a schoolmarmish way that made everyone try to please her. The last question came from the middle aged fanboy. “My grandmother made braided rugs, just like yours!” Mendolsohn smiled politely and blinked quietly for a moment. “Thank you, everyone, for coming,” she replied. “I’ll be signing books now, if anyone wants.”

Maud and I drank more wine and double-fisted seared tuna bites with wasabe mayonnaise. I had contemplated bringing my copy along to get it signed, but decided not to that morning, because it was too heavy. And also, it was covered in a layer of dust and cathair.

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