The first time I went through a car wash it was simple, because I had no idea what I was doing. That’s how it always is in the beginning. I am a little bird, beak open and pointed skyward. All I have to do is to look clueless and I’ll be told what to do. Drive up to the line? Sure. Align the front tire to the automated track? I think I can manage that. Pay at the other end? No problem.
The first time is always easy, and it follows that the next time will be easier still. With familiarity, they say, comes understanding. Another of the world’s mysteries unfolds before us, and we gain satisfaction in knowing something new. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. For me, however, knowing a thing only reveals new complexity. As I cast light into each dark corner, I find that I’m actually in some kind of fifth dimensional hypercube, and there are at least 15 more corners to take into account.
The next time I’m at the car wash I’m already thinking about each of the steps involved. Should I take the initiative this time? Shall I see if I can improve my efficiency, shave off a few seconds by anticipating what comes next? I’m so lost in thought that the guy behind me lays on his horn as if to say, “Aaaaaaa! The residue on my car grows thicker by the second!” I align my front wheels to the track, and this time, I think, I’ll hold the steering wheel steady so that the tire rim doesn’t pull against the side rails. As the wheel begins to wobble, I tighten my grip, and the steering wheel nearly jumps out of my hand, and I come this close to derailing entirely. Must remain calm, it’s nearly over. The chamois brigade have surrounded my car. Now how did I get out to pay so easily last time? The first time I was here I slipped out with nary a thought, but now I find myself trapped in my car by seven car-wiping urchins in red track suits, and there’s no conceivable way that I’ll be ready to roll by the time residue guy is on my ass again.
Is the process of having one’s car washed insignificant, or is it one of the essential building blocks that make up an ordinary life? I posit that it’s the completion of such small feats–and smaller feats still–that define our quality of life. The loss of innocence, the inability to lose oneself in the process, that’s the real tragedy. How can I help but think everything to tatters? I’m never sure how complex something can become until I’ve disassembled it into its component parts.
And now, having ruined the novelty and spontaneity of new activities, I find, to my horror, that I’ve begun to mine the processes I learned as a youth. These are the things I take for granted, like brushing my teeth, and putting on my socks. Daily rituals that used to be automatic, that required no thought, are now burdensome tasks that happen differently every single time.
For instance, I’ve lost the ability to keep one end of my towel dry–reserved, if you will–so that I can dry my hair with it. I’ve not changed my routine, I simply grew conscious of it one day, spontaneously. For two decades the procedure has been the same: grab one end of the towel, start at the top, neck, grab the first side, around front, arms, flip to back, over and around, legs and feet, then flip to the reserved side to finish off the hair.
This complex series of movements was so efficiently choreographed that I couldn’t help but to have a secret admiration for it. In my prime I was like an Olympic ribbon dancer, whipping my towel around in a controlled frenzy. But this process was never meant to be analyzed. As with beaks, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Indeed, I became so self-aware of the procedure that it ceased to be automatic. I couldn’t remember what movement came next, and was forced to dry each body part methodically, and in twice the amount of time. And, inevitably, the reserved end–the dry end–was not dry at all. As meticulous as I became, my new, inefficient procedure did an amazing job of soaking the entire towel, and to this day it is impossible for me to divine the means of my former glory.
So, the more I realize, the more of a threat I am to my own well-being. It’s not through ignorance that one finds bliss, not precisely. It’s the ignorance of ignorance: not knowing that you don’t know something. Because once I realize I’m ignorant, the magic and beauty of that ignorance are forever lost to me. At least until sweet, sweet dementia comes calling.