13: chore

I am the odd man out among almost everyone I know in that both laundry and dishwashing are sacraments in my personal philosophical practice and virtually everyone else I know hates those things with a kind of virulence that I personally reserve for church, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, watching team sports that are not curling, and attending weddings.

I thought for a while that it all came down to my adoration of laundromats, one of the new things in the world I discovered when was expelled from high school and left home at seventeen to find my way outside the familiar environs of decreasingly-rural Scaggsville, Maryland. They were and remain superb places from which to watch people, to take in overhead conversations and the mechanics of how other people talk, and to come to peace with the root cause of popular boredom, which is an inability to sit quietly in a space, doing nothing but letting the mind roam, or taking in radio drama on a portable music player.

I suppose that it’ll never be considered a domestic art on the level of cooking, because you can’t eat clothes, as a rule, and the subtle delight of making your clothes last longer and wear better lacks the appeal of the instantaneous, but when I rhapsodize over my pleasure of the process of laundry, I get the same ever-so-slightly rolled eyes I get from trying to convey the joy I get when approaching a sink full of dirty dishes and then methodically turning chaos into order. I cannot solve the world’s political problems, defeat the divisions between world powers, or correct the suffering of people living far from me, but I can wipe out the sink at the end of the day with rack of dishes drying in the dark.

Where I live, there is some vestigial cultural fondness for the particular scent and experience of taking freshly dried laundry off a line and folding it, but it’s not something that is sufficiently nostalgic as to change people’s level of interest, but both the process of artfully hanging wet laundry and collecting those dry clothes possess an energy that speaks to me.

When I was in the most fundamentalist throes of my laundry fixation, I bought a well-worn 1951 Apex wringer washer to fully embrace the experience, which led my blue collar Baltimore grandmother to say, “Oh Joe-B, you shoulda told me you wanted a warsher—I’d have loaned you some money so you wouldn’t have to buy such an old one!” She then showed me, and a number of older women would also eventually show me, as well, upon hearing that I’d intentionally purchased a wringer washer, the scar where she’d been pulled into the wringer and marred with a fierce rubber burn before she could kick the plug out of the wall.

I washed with that old Apex for a decade before a broken gear in the transmission proved to be made of unobtanium, but I knew full well that my experience of laundry, as a single guy living alone, was redolent of a kind of privilege, having had that explained to me by a number of bemused and patient women of a certain age. I was lucky, in a roundabout way, to spend almost my entire adult life living alone, so I could make some qualitative decisions about reducing the level of complexity in the task, so I removed white from the spectrum of clothes I’d wear, eliminated fabrics that required complicated handling, dressed in colors that can all be washed together in cold water most of the time and hot if they had tough stains, and avoided anything that needed ironing beyond the natural flattening effect of a clothesline.

This year, of course, turned everything upside-down.

I went from a comfortable monastic agnostic existence to sheltering at the too large and definitely too-suburban home of my recent gentleman caller, having not shared a bathroom or kitchen with another person for thirty years and suddenly finding myself living away from my cozy apartment in a walkable small town with another man and an 8-year-old in a 50/50 custody circulation. There’s no clothesline, I hate drying clothes in dryers, and I tend to want to do all the laundry, but a family of suburban-raised conventional people that upsets my rituals has been hard, so I often insist on doing my own laundry my own way, using a rack in the house like a European person, and doing their laundry their own soulless, smelly, horrible way.

“What are you making, Joe-B?” asks Little Miss, my quasi-stepchild, as I’m stirring a giant cauldron of strange-smelling goo.

“Laundry detergent.”

“Why don’t you just buy it at the store like daddy?”

I want to tell her that I have occasionally been very, very poor and that I started making my own laundry detergent out of old motel soaps, borax, and washing soda because it was about ten times cheaper than store-bought and didn’t make so much plastic trash, but as she relays many of these things to her mother, a woman I’ve barely met, but who can’t stand my existence, I defer to wry puffery.

“Oh, hon,” I say, “I’m making artisanal laundry detergent. It’s better than store-bought.” It sounds exactly like the kind of thing a so-called hipster would say, and I’m okay with that.

“Can I help?”

“It’s a lot of stirring, baby.”

“I can stir!”

I give her the big spoon, but her interest peters out after a while, and she wanders off. With no one around, I use the immersion blender I found at a thrift store, which really takes my motel soap detergent to the next level.

I’ll probably stay here, and in the same way I have a pang over the thought that I’ll be leaving behind the big 1940s gas range on which I mastered Escoffier’s five mother sauces, I dread having to dispose of the ramshackle washing machine I got from my client, which I’ve repaired frequently, but will likely no longer need. Next year, I’ll put up a lovely aluminum clothesline tree, which I’ve laid out in my list of my-way-or-the-highway requirements for pulling up stakes and moving to the…ugh…suburbs, and will start browbeating the household into learning the basics of proper laundry even as I further come to understand why women of a certain age would find my laundry romance inexplicable (the mere thought of having to keep up with even one more child makes the prevalence of Valium and infanticide relatable).

My grandmother had a clothesline on pulleys that reached from the concrete back stoop to the alley, and I hang with her as she’d reel the dry clothes back in in the afternoons. She’d pull the lines, and the metal rings that kept the lines together when heavy things were hanging would ring like little Buddhist meditation bells as blouses and trousers and her husband’s coveralls would roll our way.

“Joe-B, could you fold those for me before they wrinkle?”

“Okay,” I’d said, with a little pre-teen huff in my voice, as I folded them on the cast-iron garden table. She’d pause, the little rings going quiet, and straighten my sloppy folds.

“Why are you smiling? Aren’t you bored?” I asked.

“No. It’s a beautiful day and the bluebird of happiness is on the wing.”

“Where?”

“It’s just something people say, Joe-B. If there’s something you have to do, you can either hate it or find out how to love it. I’d rather find out, myself. Everything takes longer when you’re not enjoying it.”

Enjoying laundry? That’ll be the day.

Little Miss watched me carefully measuring a spot on the wall, eyeballing the balance between where my electric bass hung on a hook and the corner, and I marked the position, installed a nice screw-in drywall anchor, and carefully hung up a curious metal object of cast aluminum with a textured double spiral and a circular, slightly domed base.

“Joe-B?”

“Yes, darlin’?”

“What’s that?” she asked, as I straightened it up on the wall and admired it there.

“That, young lady, is the agitator from a 1951 Apex wringer washing machine.”

“Why’s it on the wall?”

“Because it is a fine and beautiful object that makes me feel happy.”

“Why?”

“It’s the joy of laundry made incarnate,” I said, and yeah, she’s eight and I am a pompous old man who’s possibly too hidebound to be suddenly coparenting an eight-year-old at 52, but like my own parents, I never dumb things down. It looks lovely there, and yet I am momentarily filled with a wrenching panic that this is not my beautiful house, but it passes.

“It looks cool,” she says, “Kinda like a seashell or that fossil of an ammonia like you have on your desk.”

“An ammonite. Yes, hon—it does.”

I carried three laundry bags downstairs and loaded the washing machine.

The passage of my life is measured out in shirts.


@2020 Joe Belknap Wall

10: The sanctity of doors.

Quasi-parenthood is having a long, detailed conversation through the bathroom door about why some people are shy about using the bathroom and why, in particular, I’m using the downstairs toilet for my morning scan of the newspaper rather using the one upstairs, which, for some insane reason, is in the same volume as the master bedroom because of architectural stupidity and not, as should be the case, in a separate, enclosed, and well-ventilated space.

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8: Dads are embarrassing.

The world’s rife with desaturated, lifeless, dutiful dads who say “I love you” all the time as they work their way through the chore of being a parent with the same enthusiasm of someone working on a quarterly report. I used to sort of envy those dads, the patient Hugh Beaumonts in the neighborhood who just sort of did dad stuff without the extremes, but times change.

My dad was horrifying.

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7: Waltzing out of the monastery.

The last man I dated with any conviction before the appearance of The Troubadour in this story, over a period of a bit less than a month, called my house “the monastery,” though I’m certain he meant it as a criticism and I took it as a compliment.

I did live in a monastery, in a life in service to a state of self-reliance and the slow practice of learning to write and to make music and to keep the world in fine mechanical and administrative fettle, but that’s a life now mutating into something new and often inexplicable.

Almost from the start, she was changing everything. Continue reading

6: Particularly rude mechanicals.

Little Miss appeared in the library on her usual morning schedule, as I was just waking up on the couch, doing a quick morning crawl through the world news on my tablet, and unceremoniously plopped Foxy next to me. I am not fond of Foxy, a toy seemingly designed by someone with both a desire to make me unhappy and an uncanny understanding of exactly how to produce this feeling, and I turned back, still bleary from sleep, to see the threadbare robot fox perched beside me and Little Miss staring down at me.

“Good morning, Little Miss,” I said. She said nothing, but reached for the spot on the back of Foxy that spurs it into a terrifying display of dysfunction. The mechanism that once tipped a threadbare, floor-grimy head in a grim impersonation of life is long since broken, so it just grinds, horribly, and clatters as broken plastic gears clash deep in its little body. Then, firing up ancient silicon, it plays back random strings of low-fi, distorted sounds.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” it shrills, followed by “Wocka! Wocka! Wocka! AY-ow! AY-ow!” in the kind of bad human beatboxing beloved of the kind of annoying people who believe their brand of annoying to be clever and ironic instead of, well—

“That’s nice, hon, but wouldn’t you prefer to play a game instead?” Continue reading

5: The snowflake in the blizzard.

“What do you want to do?” I asked Little Miss. It was our first time on our own, after a long stretch of getting to know each other in the company of The Troubadour, and it’d been a good while since I’d had a child in single-digit years in my jurisdiction, so I had a little bit of mental recalibration to do. I caught the little glint in her eye presaging an expression of interest in tiresome pre-processed media, and preemptively added “…that’s not TV.”

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4: The product being sold.

I had a mean mommy.

My friends had virtually unrestricted, unregulated, non-stop access to the television back then, even to the point where some families would eat dinner with the TV on, suffocating any possibility of conversation under a blanket of blah.

“Did you see Charlie’s Angels last night?” my schoolmates asked, in a clutch of morning chatter as the class was taking shape, and I stood there, utterly clueless, hoping to successfully fake my way through a breathless revisitation of what Jaclyn Smith’s breasts had been up to the night prior, but my father’s advice on how to fake an interest in sports was not particularly effective in the context of media critique.

“Umm…yeah, that was some episode, right?” I said, and the kids went straight to scoff face.

“What was your favorite part?” asked one particularly virulent boy who lived down the dirt road, where the well water always came out ruddy.

“Uh—” I started. “The part with the gun.”

All the parts have a gun, dork.”

“No, uh, you know, the part with the special gun…umm…that they found…and then they were chasing that guy.”

Exposed.

Pssht,” hissed the virulent boy. “You were prob’ly reading the Bible all night, dipstick.”

It was a peculiar thing to say, but I think it was informed largely by the fact that the only other kids who were perpetually in the dark about the latest and greatest light entertainment to pour from the screens of the deluxe Mediterranean-style 25-inch-diagonal console sets into paneled, shag-rugged dens of the cooler kids’ suburban split-levels were the kids of the dour Bible-beaters and the neighborhood Mormons, who shockingly preferred a nice evening of family board games to the panoply of seventies jiggle-TV that was the standard primetime fare of my youth.

“Was not. I was reading Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke,” I quipped, pronouncing “rendezvous” as “ren-dez-vus” in a literary repudiation of my attempt at erudition, “which is a very amazing book about a giant spaceship.”

Eyes rolled. I was really not good at the comebacks then.

Damn my mom and her stupid thing about TV.

The group drifted away, snickering at me.

Still, Rendezvous With Rama was a hell of a book for a ten-year-old. Long after the missed potential reward of having seen Farrah Fawcett Majors in a wobbling run, fighting the inertial complexities of running with two unsynchronized and braless breasts and a drawn pistol, faded from mind, I’d lie in bed, drifting off thinking about what it would be like living in a future where a thirty-four mile long spaceship drifted into our solar system unannounced, and if I was going to be forever in the company of the church mice and my Mormon friends in social isolation, I would not be short for stories.


“Joebie?”

“Yes, darlin’?”

“Can we watch TV?”

I looked at at Little Miss, still rubbing her eyes as I lined up the materials for breakfast and ground a batch of coffee for The Troubadour. Her hair was a mess, more Valley of the Dolls than young princess, but I loved watching her booting up in the morning, when she’d come down to the library, where I sleep on her nights, to stand by the couch there, silently, waiting for me to wake up and usually losing patience and starting to repeatedly whisper my name in wake-up mantra. We are the early risers in the house, and both grasp the gift of those hours just before the sun washes over the world.

“I’m afraid not, hon,” I said, happily ending the dental-tool whine of the grinder. “We occupy a home undiminished by the ghastly presence of a distraction machine.”

“A dist-whaa machine?”

“A distraction machine. Pancakes or French toast?”

“Pancakes.”

“But I want to watch TV.”

“I’m sorry.”

She pulled the pout face, and I waited for a moment to see if she’d actually go for arms-akimbo defiance to complete the gesture, but she was countering without much conviction that morning. I added the ingredients to the bowl for pancakes, got a fork from the drawer, and handed everything to Little Miss for sous chef duties. She climbed up on the yellow step stool at the center island, took the fork, and flailed it in the bowl.

“Why can’t we watch TV? Can we watch something on the big screen?” she continued, alluding to the nice projector and pull-down screen in the library where we watch films together.

“We’ve only got an hour to get ready for school, sweet pea, and I suspect a substantial fraction of that is going to be spent in the eternal debate about brushing your hair,” I said, and asked her if I could hold the fork for a moment. “If you hold the bowl like this, and hold the fork this way, it’ll be easier to get the right consistency.” She nodded, and took the fork back, approximating what I’d shown her.

“What’s ‘consistency?'”

“That means if it’s thick or thin, smooth or lumpy.”

“What’s it for?”

“When the consistency is right, we know the pancakes will come out right.”

“Is this consistency right?”

I peered into the bowl and found it mostly about right. “Looks good. You wanna help me set the table for you, me, and Daddy?”

“I’m going to make napkin swans!”

In truth, her napkin swans were yet in a primordial stage of evolution, but there is something to her enthusiasm for learning such things that just reaches way, way back into my history and makes me smile. I have been telling stories about my father for so long, and I’ve struggled, sometimes, to figure out how to tell the stories in which my mother is the heroine, but in these moments, I think of my mean mommy and how long it was that I thought of her as being an impediment, when what she really was was the gatekeeper to a world in which I was invited in to the joy and wonder of doing instead of just plunked in front of a television set as a default. I never knew how much effort it was to stay engaged, and to somehow shoehorn my own responsibilities in around the whirling chaos of a child for whom the world is unfolding and expanding so swiftly, and it’s an education both in supernatural patience and the reward we get from staying present when it’s so much easier to surrender to distraction.

TV is a great babysitter, in a strictly mercenary sense, but in the words of Andrew Lewis, writing on Metafilter, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”


The hair brushed, the pancakes cooked, presented, consumed, the bag lunch prepared and backpack packed, we find an open moment.

“Know what, sweet pea?”

“What?”

“I think we have just enough time for a game.”

“Sneaky Squirrel?”

“That might be too involved. How ’bout Uno?”

“Yeah, yeah!”

It’s strange to think I ever got so immersed in the world beyond the edge of youth, where we start dividing everything into chores we hate and escapes we need, still reaching into those voids of distraction and entertainment as tools for conquering the fear of just being right where we are, doing what we’re doing, in the moment and as connected to the indescribable sense of life as a thing that flows through a landscape that’s beyond us as we’re likely to get. Sometimes, it just takes a few subtle moments of mean, when we can decide to pick the channel that feeds a broad, shallow, sluggish stretch where nothing happens or take the route with rocks and pools and unexpected discoveries just around the bend.

“Color change!”

“What color are we changing to?” I ask.

“Green!”

Good, I think. I’ve got some green. I’m reminded of my friend Leland, and his family playing board games every night, and what we shared in common.

For a moment, I let worry cross my brow, and ponder the chores of the day, and drift away, but I play my card and let it go.

The cold never bothered me anyway.


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall