On Batch Work

On Batch Work

2017 will go down in family history as the year we survived two months without a dryer, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

One day a few years ago our then-eleven year-old washer kicked the bucket. It wasn’t a good time. I was over-scheduled, over-committed, over-everything’d. I probably could have found the plain old time to go washer shopping, but I promise you I couldn’t have found the mental energy. Any moments of not-otherwise-committed time I could find in my days were spent in the quietest room possible. Eyes closed, I tried desperately to shut off the running commentary in my head. Commentary about to-do lists and timelines and how well or not-at-all-well I was handling life in general. Washer shopping was not in the cards for me that year, let alone the very month, week or day the washer quit. Fortunately, I’m married to a capable man. One who promptly, the very next day, went to the local hardware store and crowdsourced our next washer purchase, loaded it into the back of his truck, brought it home, and had it installed before I even emerged from my first meeting that day.

It’s a washer that’s gotten us through many harried months. It never once failed us. It filled in during a particularly needy phase of life and that was all I could ask of it — or anything else — at the time. That said, The Man bought a washer that met priorities he set with a bunch of rural-living middle-aged men in our local hardware store in the middle of the week. Men who mostly have two types of clothes: stuff designed to hold up to the rigors of manual labor, and pajamas… that would also probably hold up to the rigors of manual labor. The priorities they collectively came up with included just two questions: 1) does it wash? And 2) is it simple enough that the aging local handy man can repair it forever and ever amen? Because as far as they are concerned all these electronics are unnecessary nonsense designed solely for the purpose of making repair bills more expensive. Sometimes they’re not wrong.

And perhaps they would have been right even in this case, if both their qualifications had actually been met. Unfortunately, after two years of using it, I’ve learned that the answer to the first question was considered negotiable as long as the answer to the second was a resounding yes. It is simple — with absolutely no bells and whistles, and only three wash cycle settings — but it only sort of washes. If you do a really small load and if you’re not picky about how anything other than a pair of wranglers and a t-shirt that was probably free and features some vendor’s name and logo on the front pocket come out at the end of the cycle. It’s hard on fabric and exceedingly small. Which brings me back to the dryer.

Because it wasn’t just any two months. Not, say, the two months of July and August when there are more hot, sunny days than not; when clothes would dry in no time hung out on the line in the backyard. No, we survived February and March. When there are only a few days — if you’re lucky — when you can hang clean, wet laundry out on the line and bring dry, sunkissed clothes back inside at the end of the day. Otherwise, all you get are clothes that are wetter and colder than they were when you began. And in many cases simply frozen.

The thing is, I’ve seen those blog posts from moms who somehow manage to do their whole family’s laundry with nothing more than a freestanding clothes drying rack all through the winter. So when the nearly fourteen year-old dryer quit the day before I had to leave for Indonesia, I put my farmers-can-jerry-rig-anything mindset straight to work and hauled my photo backdrop stand out of my office and into the family room where I demonstrated its usefulness with a load of laundry I had been washing to take along. It worked well enough to get everything I needed to pack squared away for the next day, and when I checked in with The Man and the girls from the other side of the world they mostly reported the same. Sure it works, they said…you just have to keep on top of it. Every. Single. Day.

And the truth is, I really like the idea of being one of those people who keeps on top of their laundry every single day and never has more than a load languishing in a basket somewhere. Or, let’s be honest with one another here, on the floor. But I’m not that person. In fact, I’ve proven to myself in the nearly three months I’ve been back home now, that I don’t even have the capacity to force myself to be that person. I never did figure out how to wash bedding without getting two, three, sometimes even four loads behind on clothes. And forget about the end-of-season winter-farm-stuff wash-up. I’d be backed up for a month just trying to get through all the carhartts around here.

By two weeks into my re-entry from the trip the laundry already had the better of me. Our master bathroom had turned into a breeding ground for every kind of laundry you can imagine — workout clothes and chore clothes and work clothes and school clothes and… even the dogs were beginning to wonder if we were ever going to wash their throw blankets again.

A broken dryer at an inopportune time in the heart of the great white, freezing north took my already struggling laundry setup — bless that washer and the man who bought it — and handicapped it even further. So when we set aside a Sunday afternoon to do some appliance shopping shortly thereafter I was determined not just to replace the dryer that broke in February, but also the washer that had plagued me and all my best laundry-intentions for the better part of the past couple years.

And I did. The new washer-dryer set is a powerhouse. It has bells and whistles. Even too many, maybe, but definitely some that I had been looking for. Most of all though, it has capacity. I can wash twelve adult sweatshirts in one load. Or nearly every towel we own. Or all of the cushion and pillow covers from the family room sofa and chair. All the dog beds and blankets don’t even fill the basin. And we’re dog people; we have a house full of dogs, and they all have blankets and beds, and blankets that aren’t theirs that they use as beds anyway.

I started writing this story two months ago. The intention, back then, was a simple, humorous essay about life on a farm, in the winter, with a couple kids and a bunch of animals, without a dryer. It never really coalesced the way I had hoped though and it wasn’t until this week, when I came back to the draft after gleefully tossing an overflowing basket of those dog beds into the washer, knowing they’d be spic and span and fluffy-warm a couple hours later that I realized why.

This isn’t a story about a washer and dryer. It’s a story about an era; a chapter of life that was also about reduced capacity. It’s a story not about life on a farm without a dryer, but about life on a farm in general. About the work that comes not slowly and meticulously here, but in batches. And the capacity needed to do it. It’s a story about the relief of regaining capacity that was once lost, and the wondrous feeling of the re-capture.

Economies and efficiencies of scale get a bad reputation in agriculture, but the faults are nearly always in implementation. Maybe there’s a freestanding-clothes-drying-rack way to do this thing we do, but I don’t want a part of it any more than I want to be without a dryer — or relegated back to that blessed washer — come February.

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