Monday, January 12, 2009

Cleaning up, or As Above, So Below

Connor had a couple friends spend the night on Saturday. I very foolishly cleaned house before they came. It's been wet here lately, and the ground soft and gushy. "Take off your shoes", or the shorthand "Shoes" I'd yell every time I'd hear a door to the outside open. They're all 11, and I'm exasperated when I hear the sound of shoes walking around, well inside the house (on floors I'd just vacuumed).

I've been reflecting a lot on Whole vs Parts. I've noticed that the world we rely on, the one that our senses are able to read, often gives the impression of solidity. We treat it as if it has a life of its own, and it exists to serve us.

I'm fooled by the apparent reality of my car. It's more than a car; it's a tool. It's the means by which I get my kids to school. It's a solid object in the world I don't even think about.

But I did get started considering it, when I had a thought about all of the parts, all of the details that make it up. Then I thought about what we ask from these materials--the kinds of forces and temperatures we subject them to. And I realized that even something as insignificant as a nut might be crucial to some vital component of my car's safety. I then realized that while I treat my car as an abstraction, there are thousands and maybe tens of thousands of details that compose it, each needing a certain amount of care.

So many things potentially to go wrong. It seems hard for me to believe that fallible human beings could have built something so intricate so reliably. (I hope)

I've lived in the world with an assumption I didn't realize I had: Adults are in charge of things and the details are taken care of. And the details will take care of themselves,

I think Hurricane Katrina, and the failures of the response systems were the beginning of my loss of innocence. And I think that George W. Bush was a victim of the deception of apparency. My guess is he too believed that the Adults would take care of it, that the Adults had Things in place, and furthermore Things would take care of themselves. There have been other hurricanes and Things were taken care of then too (at least there weren't the glaring failures that everyone in the world could see). Why shouldn't things take care of themselves this time, too?

He forgot, as I'm frequently guilty of doing--that the functioning of a Whole--all the agencies and systems that have performed well in the past--function because someone was paying attention to the details. The Whole works because all of the moving parts required, and the integration of the moving parts are details that are maintained and attended to. We saw the results of what happens when systems don't work together seamlessly. One can't rely on the appearance of the Whole--one has to understand that its apparent solidity obscures the many components that make it up.

I have a feeling that some similar kind of delusion may have been at work in the failures of Iraq, and Afghanistan: a belief that the Adults were in charge and it was all going to work out.

The trouble is, We are the Adults.

Realizing this has made me feel rather vulnerable.

So I've got 3 11 year old boys and one 7 year old in my house. They came up to raid the kitchen and left behind a trail of counters smeared with jam and littered with crumbs. This along with the jars they'd taken from the refrigerator, none returned to their place. Next morning I make Connor clean it up. When he protests that he 'didn't do it', his friends did, I tell him he needs to get his friends to come clean up. I tell him he's responsible for his friends and if he doesn't want to ask them to do it then he has to. An angry response, leaving me perplexed. Why should someone be angry when being held accountable for their own mess?

As I watched him clean I could see the level of details that accomplish the goal of 'clean up after yourself'. I want the boys to clean up after themselves to a certain standard. But there is incredible detail in accomplishing this. and I feel tired at the thought of taking them through every step. It comes as second nature to me; apparently it doesn’t to them. When laid out, every detail of what it takes for them to meet that standard is overwhelming for them. It overwhelms me: put the lid back on the peanut butter jar. Find a cloth. Wipe off what you’ve smeared on the side of the jar before you put it away. No, no, not THAT cloth—that cloth has been on the floor—use THIS cloth which is for counters. Wet the cloth. No, that’s TOO wet—wring it out. Wring it out more. Get it to just the right level of dampness that you can use it to clean up without making a sloppy mess. As you wipe the counter, sweep the crumbs that are there because of the sandwich you made into your hand—not the floor! Now, go wash your hands. Dry off on the kitchen towel—no, the kitchen towel is not what you use to wipe the counter! It’s too long, more difficult to control its level of wetness and besides I want to use it to dry hands on. Now look at the counter. You call that clean? Look at those crumbs there. Look at the way the light reflects off of spots there. You have to clean those off too. You already put the dishrag in the sink, in a bowl of soggy cereal that you left? Now you have to rinse it again—rinse all that stuff out of there, otherwise you just smear it on the counter…

I realize that I've had some 40-odd years of practice at cleaning up after myself. In those years I've been able to streamline the details so I don't even think about them--wiping a counter takes all of 5 seconds.

I'm still going to make them clean up, but I realize it's not realistic to expect them to do it to the same level of detail I do so easily. They've not yet had 40 years to learn. This is a classic example of them not being able to see the forest for the trees, and me missing the trees for the forest. So I guess for a while longer I'll be cleaning behind them, at least to get it back to my own standard of order.


Mrs. Spit said...

You described it so perfectly. I'm also wondering, as I remember back to the early years of my marriage, when Mr. Spit and I negotiated clean, how background and standards and gender (maybe men really don't see crumbs the way women do?) and even things like self worth (what will they think of me, if I can't keep a clean house)come into play.

I think on the national stage, how we relate to others, how we solve problems, what we take action on, what gets news time, what appeals to us, who we consider the deserving to be, well, I think the personal is political, isn't it.

Mrs. Spit said...

I also must confess, I can see things from C.'s point of view. Lots of adults don't clean up their messes either. . . .

Hosted by Martha said...

It is so humbling and I thank you for reminding me that I am the grown up. Reading about Katrina, our wars, and the fallibility of humans and our machines, reminded me of the Challenger Shuttle disaster due to a small O ring failure. It is so hard to explain and teach, and let our boys do their best, even though it is different then what I would do. I am learning that it's more important that they have this responsibility and feelings of accomplishment.
Great post and yes, I too have learned the hard way, no cleaning the house before sleepovers.

Douglas W said...

We often assume that others see the world from the same viewpoint as ourselves. But everybody has a slightly, and sometimes ddrastically, different viewpoint. How we see the world is influenced by our past experiences; our prejudices; our prior knowledge or lack of it; our understanding or lack of it. The way 11 year-olds see jam and crumbs on a bench is different to the way adults might see it (well, some adults - because some adults would also leave the trail of crumbs and jam and wonder what the problem is). The way Gerorge W. sees the world is certainly quite different to the way many of us see it - take his recent press conference and the "disappointments" he identified. He was disappointed that WMDs were not found in Iraq. Surely he should have been pleased with that outcome. But then he probably was hoping for a justification for the war. He didn't see any connection between himself and the economic problems facing the world - according to him he simply inherited a recession and went out with one.

Sometimes we assume that others see things the same way that we do. But often they don't. We assume people should be happy with what makes us happy. Or sad about things that make us sad. Or that they shouldn't worry about things simply because we don't worry about them.

Yes, interacting with other people and coming to an understanding of their point of view can be complex. It can be frustrating. It can be rewarding. But it needs to be done. And we probably should not make too many assumptions about how we think others might or should respond to things.