The Real Deal

by Ann M. Colford

Anyone who has visited my home will recognize the delicious irony in my authorship of an article about housecleaning. My attitude on cleaning leans toward the philosophy of that noted domestic maven, Phyllis Diller. "Housework can't kill you," she used to say, "but why take a chance?"

It's not that I like to be messy, mind you; it's just that I dislike cleaning more. And there's always something more intellectually stimulating -- or just plain fun -- out there waiting to distract my most noble efforts at neatness. If pressed, I take the moral high ground and quote British sociologist Ann Oakley, who wrote in her book, Woman's Work, "Housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualization." I'm not just messy, you see; I'm taking a stand on behalf of women everywhere!

Actually, though, I wouldn't mind being a little bit neater. Unfortunately, most how-to books about housework carry a moralizing subtext based on the old Puritan dictum that cleanliness is next to godliness. A refreshing and practical alternative to the jeremiads, however, lies in the work of Linda Cobb, the self-proclaimed "Queen of Clean." After debuting with a weekly newspaper column, Cobb went on to local radio and television near her Phoenix home before penning the breakthrough Talking Dirty With the Queen of Clean in 1998. She followed that with two more bestselling titles and recently went nationwide with appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show. Now, Cobb has released two new books: a hardcover housecleaning bible, How the Queen Cleans Everything; and the paperback The Queen of Clean Conquers Clutter.

How the Queen Cleans Everything combines tips and tricks from her three prior books, along with some new topics not previously covered. Devotees who already own the earlier books may not find enough new stuff in here to justify the splurge, but for newer converts, this is an ideal way to catch up. In a single volume, Cobb covers everything from basic supplies and methods to dealing with fire damage, and it comes complete with a thorough index and a resource guide to explain unfamiliar terms.

Before she became Queen, Cobb ran a cleaning and disaster-restoration business in Michigan. She admits that she hates to do housework (God love her!), so she tries to "do things the sensible way." Many of her solutions involve the unorthodox use of common household products, and she strives for non-toxic and non-allergenic cleansers wherever possible. For instance, she advocates using either Tang breakfast drink or denture-cleaning tablets to clean the toilet. I can't vouch for Tang's efficacy because I didn't have any on hand, but I happened to have some old Polident tablets in the cupboard (don't ask), so now my porcelain throne is minty-fresh. I still had to swish the brush around the bowl after leaving it to soak overnight, but the tablets cleaned as well as any specialized bowl cleanser I've tried. All hail the Queen!

In The Queen of Clean Conquers Clutter, Cobb tackles that nemesis of creative minds: disorganization. Opening with the contrasting stories of Harried Harriet and Peaceful Pauline -- guess who's more organized -- Cobb presents her basic strategy for dealing with piles of papers and chaotic closets. True to her royal title, she calls it the QUEEN system: Question, Unpack, Evaluate, Eliminate and Neaten Up. Starting with a basic question -- what is the purpose of this space? -- Cobb proceeds through the steps of getting everything out in the open and then determining which items really belong. Once she's separated the wheat from the chaff, all of those unwanted articles must be removed from the home, either through donation or the trash. Then it's time to tidy up the space and set up a system for storage and organization that will keep it that way.

Now, all that sounds good in theory, but I know myself -- and other pack rats like me -- and I know that the fourth step is the hang-up. Getting rid of things that I "might need someday" or that trigger fond memories is really, really hard to do. Cobb's innovations are what she calls the "not sure" pile and the "sentimental keepers." The "not sure" pile consists of things you can't make up your mind about: sure, you haven't worn that red silk jacket for five years, but it still fits (a miracle!) and you might have an occasion to pull it out sometime this year. Maybe. Cobb suggests packing up all these items into a labeled box and storing it for six months. If you haven't opened the box in that time, she says, out they go. The "sentimental keepers" get packed away, too, but without the time limit imposed. That way, you still own these memory-filled pieces, but they're not cluttering up your space.

Cobb's prose is straight-forward and easy, just like her cleaning methods. She spices up the books with funny stories and quotes (like the one from Phyllis Diller) that deliver a smile along with the advice. Now that I have these books, I guess I'll have to see if her theories really work. I'll keep you posted.