The Laundry Challenge

One of the ironies of modern life is that people will pay for labor-saving devices such as automatic dishwashers, clotheswashers, and dryers, and then pay some more for gym memberships and exercise equipment.  While I am not opposed to technology in a general way, I believe we would do well to make more thoughtful choices about the machines we bring into our homes.

 

Some years back, when my kids were small, I read about how some Mennonite and Amish communities evaluate technology on a case-by-case basis, carefully considering whether a particular device will enhance community, or diminish it.  (There is, of course, much variance among the particular communities as to what is and is not allowed.)  I decided to apply this kind of thinking to how I cleaned my tile floor.  I could use our Kirby vacuum cleaner with hose attachment, or I could use the broom I’d owned since college.  The Kirby seemed like it ought to work better; after all, it was a machine, and it had an automatic transmission.  But I disliked the way it rattled around behind me on the tiles and occasionally (propelled by the automatic transmission) ran into walls, furniture, and my toes.  The engine’s noise irritated me and drove people and cats from the room.  The broom was less impressive, but more enjoyable to operate.  With no machine to drag behind me, I had greater freedom of movement.  I decided to use the broom, and spend my sweeping time listening to Daniel, then about seven years old, practice reading aloud.  (The Shaker-style flat broom, patented in 1878, is itself a terrific tool, and a big improvement over the round brooms previously used.  Laura Ingalls was very impressed by her first sight of the flat broom purchased by Pa in On the Banks of Plum Creek.)

 

Other criteria besides community enhancement deserve consideration in the evaluation of any piece of technology.  We must consider what the machine will actually do, and what it will cost, in terms of money, personal energy, and other commodities.  Some innovations–and these are mostly innovations that happened a good while back, like running water and non-electric washing machines–can be confidently said to significantly improve people’s lives.  Truly demanding work is reduced to a more manageable level, and improved hygiene means less exposure to infectious diseases.  Other devices can be harder to evaluate in terms of a net gain.  Am I saving a small amount of physical labor, but having to work longer hours at a job I don’t like to pay for the machine?  Do the maintenance requirements of the machine offset the projected savings in labor?  If so, to what degree?  Does the machine enable me to do with greater ease something I shouldn’t be doing anyhow?  Is its overall tendency to ennoble my life, or to make me stupider, weaker, altogether inferior?

 

It would be rash to dismiss new things simply because they are new.  The wheel and the plow, the forge and the spinning wheel, all were innovations at one time.  But we should tread carefully, and think about where a particular tool or machine might lead us.

 

An eye-opener of a read for me years ago was More Work For Mother:  The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Schwartz Cowan.  The author argues that many household labor-saving devices have not saved much labor at all in the long run, only redistributed it.  Chores that were once shared with husbands and children are now done more exclusively by women (how many family members does it take to load and operate a dishwasher, anyway?), and the availability of machines has proportionally raised everybody’s expectations.  Women are as busy as ever with housework, but they are working in isolation; and to my own thinking, the work is of a lower quality, with more mental aggravation and less healthful exercise.

 

We had an opportunity to scale back some of our household technology several months ago, when our electric clothes dryer gave up the ghost in the dead of winter.  Instead of forking over a big chunk of change for a new dryer, we elected to fork over a nearly-as-big chunk for a spinning umbrella clothesline.

 

Well, why not?  Electricity doesn’t grow on trees, after all.  Questline estimates that a clothes dryer uses more electricity than any other household appliance except the refrigerator, costing between $1,100 and $1,500 to operate over its lifetime.  That’s not counting the cost of the appliance itself and any repairs you might choose to pay for, though more and more it seems that the first repair on an appliance costs almost as much as replacing it.  Our clothesline, purchased from The Clothesline Shop, was certainly pricey, but is sturdily built and does not have a motor or heating element to fizzle out in a few years.

 

Wind and sun are abundant natural resources here in north Texas.  They are put to good use now, drying our family’s wardrobe.  I may say that at times I could do with a little less wind.  Often I find myself wanting to say, “Will somebody please switch off this wind until I get this laundry hung?  I’ll turn it back on when I’m done.”

 

In the winter, when we first started hanging clothes outdoors, the wind was not just rough, but also cold.  Have you ever heard that the only thing standing between Texas and the North Pole is a barbed-wire fence?  It’s true.  And besides the cold, there was always the looming threat of rain or sleet.  After we bought the clothesline, I found myself more than usually interested of a morning in the weather forecasts Greg found online.  “A chance of scattered thunderstorms” was a vague, oft-repeated non-prediction that could mean almost anything.

 

Winter’s gone now, but the wind remains.  I wrestle with it almost every time I hang laundry.  I get an appreciable upper body workout from hanging Greg and Daniel’s karate gis, which, when wet, have the approximate weight and stiffness of plywood.  Socks and underwear for five people take more or less forever to hang.

 

On days when laundry-hanging tries my patience, I think about things people do to challenge themselves physically–rock-climbing, marathons, and such.  People intentionally submit themselves to exertion and discomfort, often paying for the opportunity, just to see how much they can take.  What if housework were approached this way, as a kind of sport?  Like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly’s whitewashed fence?  “You’ve climbed rocks, you’ve run marathons; but can you survive . . . the laundry challenge?”

 

I know–it would never go over.  And that’s a pity, because work, properly approached, is more fun than play.  I like hanging laundry.  I like using my muscles to accomplish something that actually needs to be done.  I like the mental puzzle of arranging the clothes and linens for maximum efficiency.

 

Hanging laundry gives me an excuse to enjoy the outdoors without standing there staring at it.  I might see a buzzard gliding disconcertingly overhead, or a blue heron pumping its way up from the pond, or a certain cheeky mockingbird (Greg’s nemesis) singing from his favored perch on our stovepipe, or glossy black grackles doing some male posturing.

 

When Greg is outside and sees me heading to the clothesline with a full basket, he comes over and lends a hand, and we talk intelligently about important things.  Laundry-hanging is the kind of chore that seems to stir up Deep Thoughts, perhaps because it gives the left brain something to amuse itself, thereby keeping it out of the way while the right brain rhapsodizes.

 

Our well-mannered dogs also like to come hang out with me at the clothesline.  They stay nearby, quiet, agreeable, and clearly happy just to occupy adjacent space.  They have never molested the laundry in any way.  If it is hot (or at least hot for a collie), they will stand or lie in the shade cast by the hanging clothes.  No doubt the damp fabric gives off some kind of evaporative cooling in addition to providing shelter from the sun:  a harmonious arrangement all around.

 

Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog sells a hand washer, made by the Amish, that we may acquire someday.  This manual clothes-washer has an ergonomic swinging handle, apparently easier on the human body than a turning crank.  Again I say, why not?  I do strength training every other day anyhow; why not put the same muscles to work doing something productive for my family?  Perhaps we could even rig a bookstand like some people have on their treadmills; then doing laundry would give me an excuse to read a book for seven minutes or so.

 

A Mennonite friend, on hearing that we were considering purchasing a hand washer, said, “Wow, y’all are really going extreme.”  Well, we’ll see.  For now, our electric washer is still hanging in there.

5 comments on “The Laundry Challenge

  1. Jill Schmidt says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog today. About 3 months ago, Joe and I discussed this topic. After our conversation, we chose to get rid of our microwave based on some research I did about the cost to operate and possible negative health implications.

    Not having a microwave has been great. I have been using more fresh produce and less dairy. My menu planning has been more creative and I am getting really good at reheating leftovers in my cast iron skillet.

    I am going to see if I can borrow the book you mentioned from the library. It sounds great. Joe just said a couple of days ago that he wishes we could go live with the Amish outside of town and glean from them on how to farm, canning, and living without the dependence on technology.

    We also talked about getting a clothes line to hang our clothes outside. For me it is more euphoric than practical. We didn’t have a clothes dryer or a dishwasher when I was a kid. My job was to hang the clothes on the line in the summer. In the winter in Minnesota, we had to hang our clothes all over the house. It was pretty humorous to look at. 🙂 Anyway, I miss the smell and feel of sheets and towels that came off the line.

    Jill

  2. mountainlaurel says:

    Jill,

    It’s great hearing from you. I stopped using my microwave a couple of years ago for the same reasons. It took a while to learn to heat leftovers, but now I am used to it.

    Another book you and Joe might like is Better Off, by Eric Brende. The author went from being a graduate student at MIT to living in an Old Order Amish-type community with his wife for a year and a half. Well-written and appealing, with a scholarly but accessible style.

    Brandi

  3. Christine says:

    We have also dismissed our dryer and opt to hang our clothes all over the house. I wasn’t sure if they made clotheslines anymore and didn’t think about just doing a good ole google search on the topic. Your beautiful descriptions of hanging clothes bring back memories of when I was a child. We always had a clothesline and I am wondering why they disappeared! I never see them anymore and now am wondering if our homeowners association allows them. After reading your posts I am more desparate than ever to find my farm in Vermont and start picking apples and tapping maple trees!! I am so happy for you and your family and the adventure you have ahead of you.

  4. Christine Konkowski-Moore says:

    Dear Greg and Brandi,

    I thought about sending you this letter privately but I decided I wanted to share my thoughts with others who know you and might read your blog. It is amazing to think of how wonderful and enormous God’s plan is and how meeting a family could truly change your life even for a hopeless pagan like my former self. Going way back in time to 1992 (at least I think it was 1992…..anyway it was a long time ago!!!) I remember the first time I met Greg at the Denton Record Chronicle where we both worked. He looked very tired and said that he just had a son! He had this joy and peace about him. I remember month’s later sitting in the parking lot rolling newspapers and having a discussion about “religion”. I told Greg I was thinking about becoming Catholic!! You can imagine how the conversation went after that. Before that moment I never really knew what a Christian was. My experience growing up consisted of going to church with friends during Christmas and Vacation Bible School in the summer. Still I was not convinced of this Jesus person Greg spoke of, after all I was a “hopeless pagan”. We had a few arguments, and a few disagreements but I always had great respect for Greg because he never wavered and was always respectful even when he thought I was completely wrong! Eventually I met Brandi when I was doing a project for a sociology class where I had to interview different families. After all Greg was very different from anyone I met. I had never met a Christian with long hair! Wasn’t that against the rules!!?? Sitting in the living room without the TV on (this was before you all moved it to the closet) I saw a beautiful family full of joy. I eventually spent many hours over the years with Brandi drinking tea and listening intently to her stories. I would talk about a family member that I was irritated with and she would start with a Biblical story that was always told with beautiful details. I hung on every word and would realize later the significance of the story. So I decided to actually read the Bible, every word, and it changed my life. Even a couple of weeks ago I ran into Brandi at The Cupboard. I started telling her about my daughter’s aversion to reading. Brandi immediately had some words of wisdom formed in a story that she had read about another woman with a similar problem who determined God was trying to teach her child perseverance (there is more to it than that but Brandi is a much better story teller than I am). I walked away from that thinking “yes, God is trying to teach my daughter perseverance”. I later realized, “No, he is trying to teach ME perseverance!”

    I am convinced it was in God’s plan for Greg to be working delivering papers, going to school so he could spread the word of God and change a hopeless pagan!! I remember saying to Greg, if God is so great why are you here delivering papers? His response was that even the poor needed to hear about Jesus. Well he was right…even the poor pagans needed to hear the truth. My life became very challenging after that and I am sure that God knew that was going to happen. I cannot imagine where I would be if I did not have God to pray to and to lean on and give my worries to. He has blessed me with wonderful health, a loving, caring, beautiful husband and two beautiful daughters.

    There are many people who are shocked to know I am one of those “Christian homeschooling moms” who reads daily devotions to my daughters every night and pray for them constantly so they can grow up to be good Christian women. They would be shocked that my idea of a good time is going to a Homeschool Book Fair and perusing the new materials for next year. They would be shocked to know that my preference is to be a housewife and have dinner ready when my wonderful husband comes home from a hard day at work. Maybe someday the way I live my life might influence someone to open their heart to Jesus.

    All these years I have not seen you, I have thought and prayed for you often. You are a beautiful example of what a family should be. Every time I have ever been in your home I could feel the love and blessing your family has. I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to talk to me, to tolerate my difference of opinion even when I was wrong and for planting the seed that changed my life.

  5. mountainlaurel says:

    Christine,

    Thank you for your beautiful message! It was a tremendous encouragement to both of us. After Greg read it, he said it was the nicest thing anyone could have said to him.

    Those were good times, though grueling, when you and Greg were working at the newspaper. We always enjoyed having you with us because you were so authentic and fun to be with. After we lost touch I still thought about you a lot, and prayed for you. It was so good to run into you again!

    May God richly bless you and your family.

    Brandi

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