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Has This Genre Played Itself Out? : When the household hints require rocket science and P. J. O'Rourke joins in, it's the end of an era.

October 24, 1993|Peter Haldeman

The household hint industry is nothing if not resourceful in its quest for new, previously unpublished pointers. Would you have thought of this? "Break (dryer lint) up and put it into the cups of an empty egg carton. Melt paraffin and pour it over the entire carton, being sure to fill all the cups. When wax is dry and hard, break the carton into two sections and put them on top of the charcoal or wood to start (your barbecue)." This gem, from "Mary Ellen's Clean House," makes it hard to believe we ever bothered with lighter fluid.

I am composing this piece on a Toshiba side-lit liquid crystal display screen cloaked in several millimeters of fine dust. I make this confession only to establish that I am no more likely to utilize a housekeeping manual--of which four have recently been issued--than I am to beat a deadline. That much is clear. What is less clear is who, precisely, aside from their authors and publishers, does stand to benefit from these books. Wouldn't neat, responsible individuals deem them superfluous? Mere magnets for more dirt, soot and grime?

I offer that cleaning guides are intended not so much for reading as for giving. In particular, I think they are meant to be given to people like me, which is to say pitiful slobs, so that when we open our gifts friends and family can have a good laugh at our expense. The titles of two of the new books would seem to support this thesis: "The First Men's Guide to Cleaning House: How to Do a Job That's Bigger Than You Are on the Strength of Your Admittedly Puny Endowments," by E. Todd Williams, and P. J. O'Rourke's "The Bachelor Home Companion: A Practical Guide to Keeping House Like a Pig." Personally, I wasn't exactly in stitches over either one of these volumes. A typical Williams witticism: "Vinegar for salads, ammonia for cleaning. Who ever heard of red-wine ammonia?" Must be what the liner notes mean by "acerbic humor." O'Rourke's shtick is barely of a higher order: "How often does a house need to be cleaned? As a general rule, once every girlfriend." Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I think messy jokes, like fat jokes, wear thin.

Anyone old enough to read a newspaper knows who the real masters of this medium are. I'm talking about those lifestyle-section stand-ups, Heloise and Mary Ellen. \o7 Verbum sapienti\f7 from "Heloises' Household Hints for Singles": "Company coming and kitty just had an accident on the carpet? Put some minty mouthwash in a squirt bottle and spray directly on the carpet. It will control the odor until you can take serious steps to remove the padding and replace it." Or lay down new floors, depending on the duration of the company's stay.

It's in the why-didn't-I-think-of-that department (effortless yet inspired pragmatism) that Heloise and Mary Ellen really, um, shine. Among Mary Ellen's 18 tips for cutting your cleaning time, two alone are worth a life's supply of Dustbusters: "Don't clean places that aren't dirty" and "Don't clean things you don't like." Just what I had in mind for the Toshiba.

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