I once asked a 100-year-old woman to name the greatest innovation of her lifetime and without skipping a beat she said, "The electric washing machine."
If she were alive today, she might have said, "The laundry-folding robot."
If you've been preoccupied with thoughts of body-slamming politicians and Melania's travel wardrobe, you may have missed the more important news recently, which is that the laundry-folding robots are marching our way.
As reported in The New York Times, at least two companies plan to bring the laundry wizards to the international market by the end of this year.
One of the devices, invented in
Ahoy, FoldiMate! Can you match my socks too? Thanks, pal.
Liberation from laundry is presumed to be a universal human goal, and in the hierarchy of laundry's purported torments -- washing, drying, folding -- the last is presumed to be the worst, the one that until the robot revolution of 2017 has eluded technology.
But before our new robot buddies cause our folding skills to atrophy, just like calculators have ruined our ability to do arithmetic, I'd like to take a moment to praise the ancient art of laundry folding.
For some people, laundry is therapy.
I have a relative who struggles with anxiety and depression and when things are going wrong, she knows what to do -- laundry.
Laundry gives shape and purpose to her time, and it offers a beautiful reward at the end, a stack of clean clothes, sheets and towels, evidence that the world can be made fresh, that she can get things done.
The folding is her favorite part. The smoothing out, the lining up of edges, the stacking of underwear with underwear, shirts with shirts. When she's doing laundry, she's in charge of life.
Whenever I go to visit her, she demands to do my laundry and always returns it to me folded and stacked with military precision, which makes both of us very happy.
I know another woman who after her husband died found her greatest comfort down in the basement laundry room, washing and drying, ironing and folding. The warmth and the whirr made the little room a retreat. The familiar neat piles when she was done seemed to turn the upside-down world upright, if only for a while.
I'm not as ardent a laundry folder as those two are, and I'm grateful when someone does it for me. There are days when my washed clothes sit in the basket unfolded until the wrinkles have practically calcified.
But when I do get to folding, it calms me down. Like anything done consciously and carefully, it's meditative.
Wiping the creases out of a pair of shorts, tucking the sleeves of a T-shirt in just so, leaves the mind free to roam. Some people call that boring. I call it freeing.
The accomplishment, though short-lived, is tangible and visible. No fact-checking, no argument, no study required.
Some people feel the same way about washing dishes, a chore that rivals laundry for most despised. In fact, self-help articles have been written about the "Zen" of dishwashing.
Wash the dishes just to wash the dishes. Notice every plate and bowl. The work is the reward. There is no hurry.
But most of us are in a hurry, a reflexive, habitual, cultural hurry, which is why the laundry-folding robots will find a market.
The FoldiMate website brags that the robot, with a potential price of $700-$850, will take a mere 2.5 minutes to fold an average laundry load of 25 items, a task that would take a super-fast human four minutes.
That means we humans would have another minute and a half per laundry load to spend on Facebook.
One day we may look back on folding laundry the way we do on scrubbing clothes on rocks down by the river. Were we ever forced to do such primitive labor?
But I'm guessing that I'll keep on folding the laundry just to fold the laundry. Unless one of those machines can perform a feat I've never mastered, which is to fold a fitted sheet in a truly satisfying way.
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