The Zen of Dishwashers
When I was in high school, I had a desk drawer full of little slips on which I had written brief anecdotes that I had collected over time about bits of conversation or the way people looked or situations that struck me as somehow odd and that therefore needed some explanation. A friend of mine when I was a teenager introduced his mother to me and used her first name when speaking with her in my presence. Was that his usual way of addressing her? Was it a joke to put on that familiarity in front of strangers? Was it just on the borderline of being an insult because he was mad at her about something else?
The same general process of deliberately using incorrect forms of address occurs all the time, and so would seem to constitute one of the many “laws” or structures of social practice that anthropologists and sociologists are proud of noticing. When my son was in high school he dated a Chinese girl who in his presence referred to her grandmother as a “Chink”. Was this a sign of affection, a sign of showing off, or a way to tell Harold he was not part of the pack or was now admitted to the pack? My desk full of notes show me, at this remove, that I was on my way to becoming a sociologist
Anecdotes therefore serve as something far more than the qualitative evidence derided by quantitative sociologists as a poor substitute for statistics. Their purpose is not to represent any universe of observations or to apply generally only if all other conditions remain constant or are transported with them. Rather, they can do far more than spell out a particular culture or point to what might, tentatively, be identified as a variable to be confirmed by other means, as when we say that the single mother family is the predominant form of raising children among poor blacks and so what is said about a particular set of single mother families holds for other families that have the same dynamics. And, mind you, they yield explanations that are sociological rather than psychological in that it is the nature of the event rather than the feeling about the event that is crucial in the explanation.
Anecdotes do their own work in documenting on a non-comparative basis a basic feature of social life that is often other wise indentified as part of the human condition or what God has chosen to a lot to us as the nature of life. That David fell for Bathsheba says something about men and women, about what God will forgive but people do not, but also that women may know what they are doing when they bath on a rooftop that can be seen from the king’s palace. There is something intrinsic or essential about that relationship. Yes, Bathsheba was “breaking norms” except that what happened is what happens and there is no use claiming it shouldn’t happen or that it only happens once in a while.
The Bible is full of such anecdotes that are not quite stories but are still odd enough to show something really important. Noah was uncovered in his nakedness. What was so strange about that? It shows that the culture he lived in was rather prudish or else that all cultures have such inhibitions. Freud would have a field day with men uncovered before their sons, though I don’t remember his having written about Noah. It goes very deep, and gets summed up in a sentence in Genesis. Then there is the troubled Saul, from many centuries later. Why was he so troubled? He was anointed by God. He was the King. Yet he needed to be soothed by the music played by David. Maybe Saul was one of those borderline people who can cope well enough but not overly well without a lot of support. Remember, he did not have the gumption to commit genocide against the Amalakites and so God placed his favor with David instead.
This is a current issue. I had an encounter on the street with a young and very sweet Hasid who could only say that God has his reasons. I would have preferred him to admit that what God does can to the rest of us seem awful odd rather than just mysterious. Moreover, the oddities or quirks of politicians do not go away. If you think about it, a lot of candidates in this year’s mayoral race are rather strange, and not just Anthony Wiener. Bill DiBlasio and Christine Quinn have interesting personal biographies, though those do not, in either case, provide a pretext for contempt, and William Thompson is so bland that people may be holding that against him.
As I get older, however, my interest has shifted away from the oddity that reveals a great deal about how social life is conducted to the usual that reveals nothing but simply is what social life is made of. I was thinking about this when I was emptying and reloading the dishwasher this morning. I remembered having told myself, realized to myself, at the time my children were young, that I had been loading and unloading dishwashers for a very long time and there was no use to fuss about it or resent it because, after all, I would be doing it, hopefully, for a great many years to come, which has certainly become the case. It is what people do with their lives, just about every day, once life is settled down in the sense that there is a family to be attended to. What did you do with your day? Well, people go off to work and deal with illnesses or read good books, but what they also do is load and also unload the dishwasher. Get used to it.
The second thought I have about that activity is that, in addition to it being a life-long repetitive task, is how to go about doing it. I empty the top row before the bottom row and leave the silverware for last. I am not sure why that is the case. There is no reason not to unload the silverware first or to move all the big plates to the kitchen shelves before the little plates rather than lift up whatever plate catches your eye first. Is the choice between one method of unloading over another an aspect of your ability to make choices and so a reason for satisfaction in itself? Or is it not important enough a choice as to qualify as a kind of freedom that, as far as I know, is not guaranteed either by the United States Constitution or any political theory that I know of? What makes choices important enough to be considered the exercise of free will? That is a very deep question, far beyond the realm of dishwasher practices, but something that fills the mind that is otherwise not entirely preoccupied by the petty tasks being undertaken at the moment, such as emptying the dishwasher.
And then there is a third thought that gets set off in my mind. I alluded to it when I suggested that one might as well get used to unloading dishwashers because you will be doing it all your life. How does the task become satisfying rather than merely necessary? It is very weak to say simply that we “identify” with the task. I prefer to think that we “groove” on the task. And it might be that we get to groove on anything that is an everyday practice; or it might be that some people but not others learn to groove on whatever they do, and others are not fortunate enough to have that skill. In fact, some religions think it takes a life time of endeavor to train oneself to find ordinary tasks altogether engaging spiritually. People are in touch with the existence of the world around them as an objective entity placed within the world of extension in so far as that is to be treated as distinct from the world of thought. They know this every time they see themselves lifting the plate out of the dishwasher so that it doesn’t clang against the side but is there, its full “plateness” in view for you.
The advantage of being a sociologist (or a fiction writer) is that you need never look at a dishwasher the same way twice. Heraclites knew that, and so can the rest of us. Indeed, the case may be that everything in life can be classified as either odd or usual. I think Kierkegaard thought about it that way. What was odd he called “ironic” and what we would call usual, he would call rock bottom fundamental, like an unironic trust in authority. But that, perhaps, is to carry the discussion of the ordinary far too far outside the realm of the ordinary.