Zen and the Art of Personal Maintenance

Liz Spikol says the new "Clean Cures" book offers plenty of simple ways to rid yourself of wasp stings, cold sores and flatulence. But its arrival may be yet another sign that South Street Bohemia has been vanquished by the Gods of Commerce.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 6, 2009

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When I was a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, South Street was still counterculture. Mohawked punks smashed store windows after midnight screenings of Quadrophenia; kids had knife fights while still dressed in Rocky Horror wear. There were no chain stores – just a lot of artists and weirdoes. It looked more like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid than the United States. Now Starbucks, Auntie Anne’s and their ilk have siphoned off the singularity in the service of lattes and sugary pretzels.

One of the best things about South Street back in those days was Garland of Letters, a store that’s rolled with the changes and remains today. After getting hopelessly stoned inside the movie theater on South Street, my friends and I would move in a dopey clutch from store to store, and Garland of Letters never disappointed: Between the foreign (to us) South Asian music and the heavy funk of sandalwood, it was like getting stoned all over again – and the books were suitably wacked out, all about alternate universes and spiritualities that had no truck with bar mitzvah dance parties or First Communions.

This was before yoga and Madonna’s Kabbalah and doggy massage. This was when it was really radical that my Jewish cousin went Buddhist. Garland of Letters? We could only assume it was owned by cultists.

Nowadays, the bookstore-cum-gemstore is a well-worn institution, and the books have a less radical sensibility – or perhaps it’s my own sensibility that’s changed. Recently, I picked up Clean Cures: The Humble Art of Zen-Curing Yourself by Michael Dejong. It’s part of the My Kind of Clean series that includes advice on natural housecleaning and natural hygiene. This latest in the series advises readers on interventions for everything from wasp stings to anxiety to flatulence, which the book calls “humm-errhoids.” The solution? Varying combinations of six ingredients, all of them easy to obtain: apple cider vinegar, baking soda, honey, lemon, olive oil and salt. Sure, they’re good on pasta or in a tart. But they’re even better for a cold sore.

It’s like this: Let’s say you’re me, at 13, and you’ve just been sitting in the movie theater on South Street, smoking a doobie, and now you’ve got dry mouth. As Dejong writes, “a dry mouth can affect both your enjoyment of food and the health of your teeth … Don’t live with ‘cotton’ mouth another cotton-picking minute.” (There is nothing this man likes better than a pun.) Four out of his six ingredients can actually help with this: baking soda with water cleans and refreshes; honey relieves dry mouth, says Dejong, “and it’s yummy!” Sucking on a lemon rind will do the trick or try a saltwater gargle.

See how simple? Unfortunately, the other “cures” in this book are not only simple, they’re simplistic. Everything is a variation on the above. Have a hangover? Drink some apple cider vinegar, or do the same baking soda-in-water thing or have a spoonful of honey or maybe some honey mixed with lemon juice. Wait! This one is a little different: “A shot glass of olive oil before a night of drinking prevents a nasty hangover.” I like it when he brings the olive oil in.

The problem with this very nicely designed little book -- which features what I can only call hipster black-and-white line drawings – is that you get the feeling it’s a bit of a gimmick. Dejong’s intro is bright and endearing, proving he’s a funny guy and a breezy writer. And since he’s not especially fond of doctors and pharmacies, he finds it comforting to have some natural remedies in the house, so he doesn’t have to go outside. I hear that. But the advice in this book is too vague: Having trouble with digestion? Well, “the acid in lemon juice may aid digestion.” But it may not? Um, thanks. I’ll suck a lemon and get back to you.

Some of the suggestions are novel: If I can’t sleep, perhaps I will massage olive oil into my toes and see what happens. But overall, the book seems like a good way for Dejong to keep the party going with this series. It’s supremely unessential reading, and the kind of thing – I’m sad to say –you might even find in Barnes and Noble.

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