I have done the laundry in our household for many years. This is because I like to do it and Susan does not. It is also because I notice when the laundry needs to be done and she does not. All I ask of her is that she remembers to remove the Kleenex from her pockets before she throws her jeans into the basket, which she mostly does.
After years of talking about it, I finally replaced my 26-year-old washer and dryer. The stars aligned just right – Wisconsin offered a “cash for clunker” rebate, a local appliance store purchased all available stock of a very good washer/dryer combination that was being discontinued and sold them at a deep discount, and the manufacturer even tossed in an additional rebate. So I am now learning the nuances of a front-loading, high-efficiency washing machine, and establishing a relationship with a dryer that appears to be smarter than I am (it monitors the dampness of the laundry it is drying and sets its time accordingly, for example).
The old Maytags had served us well, never requiring a repair that I could not do myself. They were sturdy beasts, right down to their hoses. My friend Harry, after reading that the water hoses on a washer should be replaced every ten years, removed his and took them to an appliance parts store. The guy looked at them and said “Those are Maytag. A ten-year-old Maytag hose will last longer than any new ones I could sell you!” Similarly, I had taken for granted the heavy rubber hose that carried the drain water to my laundry tub. The new one is lightweight plastic, so I had to drill a hole in the wall of the tub and attach it in order to make sure it stayed in place. But the old washer was beginning to leak a bit and the dryer was making disconcerting noises. They were ready for the appliance graveyard.
Here is the huge surprise: my clothes are now coming out much cleaner! As they say in the ads, my whites are whiter and my colors are brighter. Far less lint is collecting in the dryer’s lint trap, suggesting that the washer is cleaning clothes more deeply. Some of that may be attributable to the design itself. It is an entirely different washing process that is more interesting to watch than most of what is on television. But I am guessing that it also reflects the fact that the old washer had been losing its efficiency for years in increments so small that I did not notice the change. And therein, of course, lurks a metaphor.
The idea that ignoring a small, undesirable situation will inevitably lead to gradual, often unnoticed, worsening is most commonly expressed in terms of the camel’s nose: “if the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” We have also the fabled “slippery slope,” the “for want of a nail” proverb and – my personal favorite – “boiling a frog.” Toss a frog in boiling water and he leaps out, but heat the water gradually and the little guy is toast before he figures out something is wrong. Not that I ever have, or would, boil a frog myself. Similarly, there are any number of personal disciplines that, if allowed to slip a little bit at a time, will ultimately be lost. Take handwriting -- I have no idea when mine passed from “poor penmanship” to “utter illegibility,” but somewhere along the way that frog got boiled.
So for years I have accepted laundry that was not as clean as it should have been because my standards and expectations were declining in lockstep with the washer’s performance, and it took an external reality check – in this case, in the form of a new washer – for me to notice. Which is why we need friends who will hold us accountable and provide us with reality checks. I will show you my laundry if you will show me yours.