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The Dry Cleaner Syndrome

October 28, 2010 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

A new definition for insanity.

It all started a few years ago when a new dry cleaner, Kno-Washee (fictitious name, but pun intended), opened up near my house. Being the posh kind of guy that I am, I wear a fresh dress shirt every day – ironed, pressed, and starched. That means frequent trips to the dry cleaners, and being a very busy fellow, I valued the convenience that Kno-Washee was bringing to my life. 

The first time I subjected my unsuspecting 100% cottons to this establishment I noticed that the Chinese clerk/alterations-lady was not, shall I say, overly-friendly.  

I’m not inviting her over for Boggle, I thought. Who cares how friendly she is? Maybe if I worked in a store that was not much larger than a medium-sized toaster-oven I wouldn’t be so friendly either? 

The first few deposits and withdrawals were uneventful. The starch content was a bit paltry and some English language skills could have helped matters, but the turnaround time was swift, the price was in the acceptable realm, and best of all there was no line (always important for BUSY people). I kept going. 

Trouble began soon after. Unwelcome yellowed spots began to invade my wardrobe. I brought it to the attention of Miss Toaster-Oven, thinking she would be pleased to be notified that perhaps some of the laundresses in her factory were eating bananas on the job. I was mistaken. 

YOU did this,” she suggested, subtlety pointing her index sewing finger surprisingly close to my midsection. 

“OIL STAIN!” she declared. 

Apparently, the preparatory classes she attended concentrated on certain key phrases that would be most useful for her enterprise in my neighborhood. But “Our fault,” “We’ll try again,” and “No charge,” were not high on the list. “Oil stain,” “No understand English,” and “Next!” were all seen as more serviceable. 

In my early naiveté, I would foolishly argue as to the culpability of the infraction, and occasionally she would even agree to wash them again (it didn’t help). But, by and large, I became accustomed to expecting the occasional yellow visitors every now and then. 

But a short time later, Kno-Washee upped the ante – they lost one of my shirts. I liked that Hilfiger button-down. They did promise me $30 if the shirt was not found, but it took them over a month and about a dozen reminders before they declared the item irrecoverable. 

I began getting more and more annoyed with them, but strangely unwilling to change venues.

I began getting more and more annoyed with them, but strangely unwilling to change venues. I asked friends which dry cleaner they frequented, but each one had his own unique tale of dissatisfaction: 

“My shirts are never ready on time.” “Parking near there is impossible.” “A little pricey…” 

While those annoyances seemed less severe than spots and lost shirts, I still couldn’t seem to make the obvious and necessary move. It was almost as if I preferred to complain than remedy – not entirely rational. 

Related Article: Free Will: Our Greatest Power

While mired in my funk of complacency, I then received a new opportunity to make my exit – a small, but quite noticeable hole found its way about four inches from the bottom of a Hart, Schaffner, Marx selection of mine. Depending on the size of my girth on any particular day, my belt either did or didn’t cover the unwelcomed aperture. My annoyance was morphing into plain old anger, which was exacerbated by Miss Toaster-Oven’s refusal to accept responsibility for their recklessness. 

Time marched on and I experienced a streak of several consecutive weeks without incident. But instead of enjoying my good fortune, I couldn't shake a sense of foreboding doom. I knew it was just a matter of time. About a week later, the shoe dropped. A gash near button number four infected the center of a Joseph A. Bank beauty that was less than three weeks old! It looked like someone had used a box cutter to iron my poor defenseless shirt. What was wrong with these people!?  

This time I wasn't going to wait. I stormed out of the house and headed straight to Kno-Washee. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Once and for all I would give them a piece of my mind.   

But when I hit my corner, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. This is going nowhere, I lamented. They don't even understand English. Other than just letting off some steam, there really was no point. It was then that the anger finally shifted from them to me. If I chose to suffer, I had no one to blame but myself. I declared that I simply could not, and would not go back there ever again. If the true definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results, I was more than qualified for the loony bin.  

Related Article: Moments of Choice, Lives of Greatness

But believe it or not, four days later I went back to Kno-Washee with shirts in tow. Before you dispatch the men in the white coats to come and get me, permit me to explain. I did a lot of thinking during those four days. I had gone through a saga that was enormously frustrating and seemingly irrational. What normal, self-respecting person would subject himself to constant, predictable abuse? To be irritated with them is normal. To be upset with myself seemed also to be rational. But why couldn't I just leave? What kind of masochist had I become? 

Strange as it may sound, it was my answer to these questions that told me to go back. It's not that I wanted to punish myself or that I was too timid to make the switch. I kept going back because I decided that convenience was really the number one, top priority for me. I decided that bringing my shirts to a place so close to my home, with no line (you now understand why), was actually worth the occasional mishap, misplace, or misfortune that I suffered. It was a cost that I was willing to pay, for the convenience that I desired. There was no point getting angry or upset – not at them; not at me. With that simple yet profound realization, my attitude changed completely.  

You are not a self-loathing, dysfunctional masochist. You are simply deciding that after all is said and done, the job is still worth it.

We all experience our own versions of the Kno-Washee syndrome. We moan about the lousy pay, the obnoxious supervisor, or the long hours that we face at work, but more often we don't quit. First we get angry at the boss or the owner, then we get angry at ourselves for accepting the less than desirable conditions, but rarely do things change. The point is that it is really okay. In most cases, you are not a self-loathing, dysfunctional masochist. You are simply deciding that after all is said and done, the job is still worth it – despite all the travails and tribulations. It is a true expression of your free will. 

We argue with our spouses and decry all the changes that they need to make, but usually we conclude that the problems we face are still worth staying in the marriage. We complain about the horrors of living in the city, but most of the loudest complainers never leave. Psychotic thinking? No. It's called prioritizing. When we keep a keen eye on what our real priorities are, our decision making process comes into sharper focus. I had discovered with a newfound clarity that getting angry at anybody was misplaced and totally unproductive. 

The key to mastering this reaction is setting aside time to think through matters before they occur: 

  • What are my priorities in this marriage/job/dry cleaner/contractor/class/computer/purchase/date etc.? 
  • How much imperfection will I accept? Where will I draw the line? 
  • How will I prevent frustration from morphing into useless anger? 

Naturally, there are cases where real abuse does occur. And sometimes people do punish themselves and accept more suffering than is healthy. Definitely there are lines that should never be crossed. But with a little prior preparation and some clear understanding of what is most important to you in each situation, you can save yourself a lot of headaches and frustrations. 

So if you can't help but snicker the next time you see me walking down the street holding my dirty shirts, I'll forgive you. Why not? I even forgave Kno-Washee.

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