Friday, August 13, 2010

The Deeper Meaning of the Mundane

Photo by Tom,
Yesterday's Washington Post reported on a study showing that couples who are philosophically in agreement on the big philosophical questions like religion are happier, on the whole, than couples who disagree. My reaction to that is a big "DUH!" Well, of course, living with someone is easier when you see the big picture through the same lens. What concerns me, though, is how couples can live together successfully when they disagree over all those little, seemingly trivial day-to-day things. Like this: What's the right way to load a dishwasher? (Is there a right way and a wrong way? The answer is at the end of this column.) Or this: Should you take the first available parking space you see or keep driving until you find the one closest to your destination? Couples may not break up over these kinds of questions but they can certainly keep up a vigorous debate about them for twenty years or more.

Perhaps the explanation is that there are really are no trivial arguments. Underneath any seemingly small, meaningless question lurks the deeper question about the purpose of our time here on earth. If the point of life is, for example, to maximize happiness, then when you're tackling the parking issue, you will naturally want to keep circling until you find the parking space that meets your ideal definition of "a good spot." If your deeper motivation is to maximize the good you accomplish in your allotted lifespan, then, quite the contrary: You will want to take the first available spot within walking distance of your destination, get out of your car, and get some exercise walking to where you want to go. That's better for the environment, too.

The number of these kinds of questions is as limitless as the number of petty chores of the day. And sometimes there isn't a this-way/that-way dichotomy of approaches but an infinite variety of ways to deal with the problem -- of, for example, what items can safely be put down the garbage disposal. On the one extreme, there are advocates of using this appliance to deal with virtually all the foods of the earth, and on the other, those who say even the softest foods like pasta or fruit salad, when dumped down in sufficient quantity, can jam up the works. Now think of the endless spectrum of issues in between: Each different type of vegetable raises a whole new set of considerations. Are parsley stems too stringy? Are orange seeds so small and hard that they will they get lodged in the blades? The overall question quickly breaks down into so many specific permutations and ramifications that it becomes readily apparent why certain argumentative types could find a bone of contention in each and every leftover at the end of every meal.

You don't think so? I can already anticipate the objections you are planning to email me in response: This isn't a philosophical question at all! It's one that an expert can answer definitively. Well, you might think so, but I say that if you call 10 different disposal repair people, you will get 10 different answers. Everything depends. What type of disposal is it? Are you running hot or cold water through it while it grinds? I talked to one repairman who said, in essence, that the whole concept of the garbage disposal is something of a sham, an illusion. Eventually, they all will break down over something. So if you want to avoid trouble with them, just get into the habit of throwing all your uneaten food in the garbage, and don't waste your time with this appliance at all. Now my friends who are environmentally sensitive agree with that advice, but not because they think disposals break down too often, but because the disposal does not break the food down in an environmentally responsible way. They say the only right way to dispose of food garbage is to compost it. You see: The more opinions I seek, the more philosophical issues arise. Now it's not just a question of how to use the appliance correctly, but whether it should exist at all.

Then there's the laundry. Do you believe there's truth in the words "Dry Clean Only"? Or do you think it's just another legal disclaimer, slapped on clothing indiscriminately by the manaufacturers' corporate lawyers, so that you can't sue them if the garment ends up damaged after washing or drying. Those who believe the latter may just throw everything in the wash on warm and tumble dry on high. That's one way to approach the dirty clothes in your life -- take risks and see what happens. If every so often you lose a piece of clothing that you liked, what's the big deal? Then there's the cautious approach: Things that can be machine washed, even if the label says warm, you might do on the cold/delicate cycle. You let almost everything drip dry. Even if the label says "Tumble dry low," you believe that your clothes will look better and last longer if allowed to air-dry naturally. But then, are you wasting hours of your life hanging things up (and then ironing them later, because you know that hang-drying makes them come out stiff) -- hours that you could be spending with your family, or alone with a good book, or taking a nice, long walk through the woods? Because, you see, it's never just about the laundry.

Now for my final example (of the thousands of things that I could pick): Filing papers. Here you have the old way and the new way to choose from. Old way: File your papers in clearly labeled file folders, organized systematically in some way (e.g., by subject and chronological order) and save all your old files until at least the IRS's minimum of three years -- six, if you like to be on the safe side. New way for the digital age: Why save any paper at all? Everything is stored electronically somewhere. Just be sure you've saved ONE thing on paper: the sheet with all your passwords so that you will be able to access your online accounts in perpetuity. Anytime you get a paper receipt that you feel you should save, just use your phone's camera to photograph it and send the file to an electronic filing system like Evernote that will even index it for you, so that it's always searchable. Then throw the paper receipt away. (Or better yet, recycle it.) Why wouldn't everyone go for approach number two? The underlying philosophical issue here is the permanence of the physical world. Is something that exists only in cyberspace really real? Or perhaps there really is no material reality at all? Even if that's the case, you might still want to hang on to your paperwork, because the bureaucrats who people our world (whether it truly exists or is all just in our minds) are more likely to believe in paper than in pixels. At least that's my philosophy.


[Answer to dishwasher loading question: Yes, dear reader, there is a right way, and this is it: Bowls, cups, glasses and anything made of light plastic on the top rack. Pots, pans, and large plates on the bottom. Knives, forks and spoons go point down in the utensil holder. Everything needs to be positioned so that the water spray can hit it on all sides and the water can drain away during the rinse and dry cycle. All of these precepts are in keeping with the laws of physics; therefore they are immutable.]

First published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on Friday, August 13, 2010.
Note on column name change: As of today, Friday, August 13, 2010, the new name of my weekly column is "Still Life With Robin." As Bill and I have launched our new online magazine today, and it has appropriated the former name of this column, we're "re-branding" (to use the current marketing term of choice) it with a name that says that it's Still about Life, still by me (Peggy Robin), with a nod of respect to the great Tom Robbins ("Still Life with Woodpecker").

1 comment:

  1. I had to read this to my husband as, it seems, you've been spying on our marriage. While my husband and I do indeed agree on the Big Picture issues, we pretty much disagree on each and everything you listed. I LOVE the thrill of getting the VERY best parking space, whereas my husband finds it an utter waste of time, if not plain laziness. Just park the car and let's get going, is his take on it. I'm an ardent filer and had my system well established before marrying. It took years to condition my husband to abide by the rules (on this one, I am right as was proven whenever we've bought a house and had to pull out back copies of just about everything when obtaining a mortgage -- initially, I had all my documents whereas my DH could find none). Thanks for the article -- it gave us both a good laugh.