Read Your Care Labels

Even if you use the delicate cycle, you can still ruin things that aren’t supposed to be washed.

Today I shrunk (Shrank? Shrunk!) a gray velour sweater that very clearly, kindly bore a “Dry Clean Only” label for my edification—if only I had taken the time to check it. It wasn’t a new sweater. I’ve had it for years and I haven’t worn it in ages, which could be why I “forgot” (giving myself the benefit of the doubt here) that it wasn’t supposed to go into the washing machine. After all, I must have known (past tense) that the sweater needed to be dry-cleaned. It wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise. Now it’s a lovely, steely gray mini-sweater fit for I don’t know what.

I’ve never been much of a rule breaker. The trouble with rule breaking is everyone thinks he or she can do it. And when we praise rule breakers I believe we simply encourage people to behave in ways that are ultimately inconsiderate, self-serving, reckless or even dangerous. (I just began a sentence with “And.” This is me breaking the rules.)

Certainly there is a sense of exhilaration that accompanies breaking the rules. In that moment—a moment that can last an awfully long time in some cases—one could feel that he was the cleverest person alive. “As clever as clever!” as A.A. Milne wrote in a poem about turning six.

How clever to outsmart everyone! How deft and daring to refuse to play by the rules set down for ordinary people! For the rule breaker is not ordinary; the rule breaker is special. Ask Bernard Madoff how special.

I realized there were just as many wrong things that could be done in the world as right things, perhaps even more. Because when you first begin to work out all the wrong things you could do, you somehow become more inventive….” This is from The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen. The character who has this revelation is a little boy, and all he wants is to do the one wrong thing that will get him thrown out of dancing school. His mind races with possibilities.

Far be it from me to advocate the stifling of unconventional thought. (I’m writing a blog based on laundry for goodness sake.) Yet I maintain that, like fabric care labels, rules have a purpose—to keep us safe, to keep us civil, to make us better. Ignoring them could get you thrown out of dancing school, could get you thrown in jail…or could just shrink your sweater.

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