What images of waste and destruction this Downy commercial conjures over its cheerful pizzicato strings and glockenspiel. “Laundry,” says the matter-of-fact announcer, “can wreak havoc on our clothes, ruining them forever.” Poor #6. He’s only nine or ten years old, but those might as well be an angel’s wings he’s wearing, for that faded, gray uniform is a premonition of death.
Don’t believe me? Then why “havoc?” We may use it a bit casually these days, raised as we have been on comic-book hyperbole, but the word still carries connotations of destruction and chaos. Synonyms include devastation, desolation, and ruin.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats knew it, and you know it. Ultimately, your clothes are doomed. It’s fairly easy to imagine a version of this Downy commercial that uses the full text of “The Second Coming” over the choral lament of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” while cameras do slow, close-up swoops over specimens of ravaged clothing.
Anyone who’s ever had to say good-bye to a favorite shirt or a pair of jeans with the perfect fit can relate. The lives of our clothes are all-too fleeting. Or perhaps we’re just living too long, and we’ve lost our sense of perspective. In the days before modern medicine and advanced laundry technology, the average peasant tilling feudal lands would be lucky to own one pair of flattering, comfortable jeans in his or her lifetime. If you’re in your forties, and living in the 21st century, you can probably remember four or five pairs that fit that description, and look forward to another handful before entering death’s bittersweet embrace. It’s all about perspective.
But why dwell on those clothes whose time has already passed?
The term “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer. It described the decline in mood he experienced when a mix-tape made by an old girlfriend got chewed up in the tape deck of his VW Golf.
Well, almost. He was describing a disease—or at least he thought it was one—suffered by displaced Swiss soldiers who experienced a manic longing associated with reminders of home. Autumn, with its reminders of decay and transience, was an especially bad time for this. Declining daylight probably didn’t help.
In his 1979 study Yearning for Yesterday, Fred Davis points out that the social function of nostalgia is to allow the maintenance of identity through major life transitions. It spikes in times of economic turmoil. It thrives on apprehension or worry about moments of major change: marriage, birth, life-threatening illness. It’s why this guy in the sad, stretched-out sweater is surrounded by emblems of youth: a bicycle, a football, an electric guitar leaning against the bed, even toy robots in the window.
In a recent column for the website “On Being,” Sharon Salzberg notes how our societal ambivalence toward change and death is linked to our desire to control time: “Mainstream Western culture,” she writes, “tends to be youth-obsessed, age-phobic, and death-denying.” By cultivating our ability to experience the present, she says, we can release ourselves from anxiety about the future and a desperate longing for the past. Like any other cures, however, meditation and awareness take practice. Even then, they don’t leave you totally invulnerable.
Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik channels those same Western anxieties about change and decay into a rollicking story of telepathic espionage and cryogenic suspension. The “Ubik” of the title is a cure-all product that—not to give too much away—retards the decay of one’s soul.
Or, in the words of one elaborately worded testimonial: “One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically priced Ubik banishes compulsive obsessive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk, worn-out tape recorders and obsolete iron-cage elevators, plus other, further, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay.”
Compare with the similarly shimmering promise of Downy Fabric Conditioner, which “not only softens and freshens, it helps protect clothes from the damages of the wash.” How, exactly? Don’t worry about that. Look at the dramatization. The difference is…uh…dramatic.
Speaking of obsessive-compulsive fears, check out the laundry room in which these demons of modern laundry are exorcised. If you were starting to feel more relaxed, thinking your laundry woes could be solved by a simple blue bottle, think again. Because you are clearly doing laundry wrong. Get over to The Container Store to learn that “laundry doesn’t have to be a chore.” Not if you get a lot of cool organizing hampers, and baskets, and color-coded hangers, and channel Betty Draper while you’re doing it.
So we are buffeted by the forces of our desire. With one hand we strive to hold onto the past, with the other we sort our lights and darks for a better future. Losses? Limitations? We don’t want to hear those words.
“It’s not you. It’s the laundry.” Just keep saying those words. After all, every meditation needs a mantra.