Humans and Machines—by Ayala Emmett

Repair or Retire that is the Question
Repair or Retire that is the Question

A human-machine conspiracy has been going on in my kitchen for the last 15 years. I couldn’t say why I was so fond of a dishwasher that had a 1970s look a boxy white and black exterior in a kitchen that already had too many colors. Most importantly, it was not doing what a dishwasher was designed to do and the seller of the house was honest about it. Any dish that was not washed first by human hands came out with a judgmental hardened glaze. Over the years I had to call on various experts (it was not cheap) to fix whatever was wrong with it. The machine mavens were always vaguely reassuring and I refused to give up.

It is fair to say that the dishwasher and I were co-conspirators. The machine’s part was to pretend by taking soap, using water, and yes, drying the dishes. My part was to use my hands and when I had guests who offered to load the dishwasher to tell them they would have to wash every dish by hand. This truthful information was often met with “Really?” “Are you kidding?” “I have a dishwasher and I don’t rinse.” A man told me, “I don’t believe in rinsing,” as though if only I had faith (in science or magic) the outcome would be different. Every so often I found a kindred spirit who would say, “I have a dishwasher just like yours.”

Last week it happened. I came down one morning and found my kitchen flooded and the dishwasher standing there silently with water that refused to drain. In distress I called my friend Jim who lives a few houses away and who has been my in-emergency expert. Could I wait until late afternoon, he wanted to know. I said yes hoping that some drainage problem would resolve itself or that Jim could fix it.

I took care of the floor that seemed unharmed. I looked at the dishwater that for the first time in years looked really tired; yet it is quite possible that it has looked exhausted all those years and I just ignored it. From morning until late afternoon its fate hung in the balance until Jim unscrewed some parts and it still had brownish water that just refused to go anywhere. Jim got up and said, “I think the best thing would be to buy a new dishwasher.” I repressed an impulse to ask, “Are you sure?”

I felt sadness that was hard to describe, let alone share it with Jim. I had to let go of a co-conspirator, a machine from the 1970s that I treated as though it was a functioning dishwasher and that trusted me to put in it only clean dishes. Pretending can’t go on forever and my dishwasher was finally tired of the charade.

The next step in accepting the end of our relationship was not much easier. I would have to buy another dishwasher and I really don’t like shopping of any kind. When President Bush told us to go shopping after September 11, I had to ask myself what I could do instead to seem patriotic. Shopping Malls are my least favorite places. I miss the local small stores that used to dot our streets, grocery stores, book stores, hardware stores, all owned and operated by local people. Knowing the owners helped to ease the monetary transactions; seeing familiar faces made consumerism feel less alienating, buying could seem less about glitzy appliances and more about sustainability of local merchants.

I finally bought it in a chain store at the edge of a mall and for the last three days I have been the owner of a white dishwasher that is energy saving, turns out beautifully clean dishes and was so quiet that I could not go to sleep. I used to fall asleep to the sound of a dishwasher that made me know it tried hard. First there was the sound of water gurgling/gushing, followed by noisy drainage and finally soothing drying sounds. When I turned on my new dishwasher it was so quiet that I touched the ‘start’ button several times. Heard nothing. I bent down and put my ear to the smooth surface of the dishwasher and this is how I knew that deep inside it was quietly doing its job.