A few days ago, my daughter approached me with her hands on her hips, her head cocked and her voice dripping with exasperation.
“Well, mom,” she said. “Your great experiment failed.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, and I said so.
“This whole not using the dryer thing,” she explained. “It’s not working.”
I still didn’t understand what she meant, so she slowed her words and paused between each one.
“The towels are rough and my t-shirts are stiff,” she explained.
“That’s because they weren’t dried in the dryer,” I said. “The dryer fluffs things.”
“Exactly,” she said.
I understood her perspective, but she didn’t understand mine – which was that dryer needed a replacement part and running it would break it completely. Besides, dryers use a great deal of electricity, and electricity costs a great deal of money. I’m all for saving electricity.
Our brief and pointless conversation was ironic.
Just days earlier, I’d had a conversation with co-workers about the benefits of drying laundry on a clothesline. I expressed the intense embarrassment I’d experienced as an adolescent when my mom had hung all of our laundry, including underwear, on clotheslines and drying racks in our backyard for the neighbors to see. A colleague, who is younger than me but grew up in the country, said everyone dried their clothes outside when he was growing up. Another, who is older than me but who grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., said she had tried drying clothes outside once but her sheets were full of bugs. The only consensus we reached about line-drying clothes is that is much cheaper.
And then my dryer started making a funny noise and I decided that cheaper is sometimes better, and we don’t need technology as much as society tries to tell us we do. Humans survived for hundreds of years without it, and even my own generation once made do with much less.
I remember my family’s first color television, first microwave oven, first electric typewriter, first answering machine and first touch-tone phone. And I most definitely remember our first computer, which required us to insert a floppy disc with the operating system. I never dreamed of voice mail, cell phones, the internet, laptop computers or being able to rewind live television.
My children can’t remember a world when they didn’t have all of that technology at their fingertips.
Their disbelief reminds me of trying to understand how my grandparents had lived without television, telephones or running water. It also reminds me of a moment in my own childhood, when my grandparents had traveled from Michigan to Oregon to visit my family.
My grandmother was helping my brother Sean clean his pet hamster’s cage. “You need to use elbow grease,” she said.
My brother looked at her and said, “I don’t think Mom buys that. Should I ask her to go to the store?”
My grandmother laughed and explained that elbow grease is something that comes from within. It is the effort each person uses to get the job done.
I am thinking about that moment as I sit on my back porch in the dark. I am fortunate that there is still a battery in my laptop computer so I can write. My son is sitting at the picnic table at the other end of the deck reading a book to the glow of a lantern.
A storm blew through my town a few hours ago, and there was a fire at the local substation. The power has been out for hours.
I can’t say I’m pleased with this turn of events. The slight inconvenience of drying laundry on a clothesline is nothing compared to the worry about the food in our refrigerator going bad, the temperature in the house getting too hot, our lack of internet and television or, most important to my kids, our inability to charge our mobile devices.
And yet, as I write this on a laptop with a depleting battery, I am enjoying the gentle breeze blowing through the leaves of the oak tree that rules the backyard and the dance of the fireflies against the dark sky. I am enjoying the fact that the only noise I hear is the sound of crickets. And I am enjoying the fact that, just for a moment, I can understand a world that used to exist. A world that depended less on electricity and more on imagination and personal relationships.
A world in which kids accepted rough towels and the need for elbow grease.