Sunday, April 15, 2007

Washing Windows in the Rain

One recent, rainy day, Daughter Number 2 and I were taking a brisk stroll down a Boston street when we came across a window washer running his squeegee down a storefront window. DN2 astutely remarked that washing a window in the rain seemed a rather futile task. Of course, it needs to be mentioned here that both of us are not expert in the honorable and ancient art of window washing, but nevertheless we felt convinced that a rainy, windswept day is probably one of your biggest enemies to a clean window. When she said it, I immediately caught onto the phrase “washing windows in the rain,” and felt it should be an expression, something on a par with “gathering wool” or “whistling past the graveyard.” Doesn’t it sound like the sort of thing your grandmother might say? Couldn’t you hear her admonish your little brother to “put that thing down and leave it alone; you’re only washing windows in the rain”?

Washing windows in the rain indicates, simply, that perfectly good effort put toward a given task is doomed to yield no desired or satisfying result. Washing windows in the rain is completely ineffective and apparently without merit, save the one dubious benefit of giving the window washer a brief and utterly false sense of productivity. It’s a case where you ought to know better, but you do it anyway. Searching my mind for a well-known expression similar to that, I came up with “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” but the two aren’t really that close, as the Titanic one strongly implies empty-headed, pointless incompetence in a time of dire emergency, while washing windows in the rain is more of an everyday, forgivable brand of empty-headedness and pointlessness. After all, one may survive washing one’s windows in the rain, but wasting time rearranging deck chairs while a whole ocean liner is going down is roughly the equivalent of, say, washing an entire glass-and-steel skyscraper in a typhoon.

Can you think of instances in your life when you’ve washed windows in the rain? In my job as a graphic designer, I know there have been many times, while developing concepts for ads or brochures, where I’ve found myself going down the wrong street but can’t stop myself; I’m perfectly aware the client won’t buy this or that, but I like the idea so much I pursue it anyway. One may call that knowingly washing windows in the rain. A supreme example of willful window washing comes from a childhood memory: in my hometown, there was an intersection notorious for hopeless congestion during rush hour. Often times riding home with my father in the family station wagon he would impulsively pull the car out of a backed-up, left-turn-only lane to lead us onto a bewildering, torturous, labyrinthine route with the sole aim of eventually attacking the same clogged intersection from another direction. As he did this, he admitted he was saving no time, and was perhaps even adding to it, but at least the act of putting the car into motion gave him a feeling of progress.

A sentimental form of rainy day window washing might be setting a place at the dinner table for a departed loved one who, in all probability, will not show up. Certainly no one expects to coax dear, deceased Uncle Ernie into reincorporating himself by offering up the appetizing and mingled aroma of broiled flank steak and potatoes au gratin, but some comfort might come to his survivors by following such an irrational custom. And then there is Zen window washing, where the mere act of soaking a pane of glass with a ragful of glass cleaner and squeegeeing it off is an end unto itself; one is concerned only with the doing, and whether the window remains clean or not is secondary. I suggest this form of window washing is very deep. A perfect example of Zen window washing is contained in the manifesto of an obscure school of art that existed briefly in the early part of the 20th century: it contended art should be transitory and, after an exhibition of so many days, a painting or sculpture should be destroyed, never to be seen again. Another example can be found in a science fiction story I read many years ago that had the main character do a very curious thing: to unwind and blow off some stress, he went one morning to a woodworking shop, plunked down some serious money for lumber and tools, and spent all day constructing a table, a piece of fine furniture. He cut and sanded and rasped and planed and so on; he lovingly fashioned the legs on a lathe, and carefully measured and joined all the pieces just so; then, in the end, after admiring what his skill and patience produced, he summarily cast the table into a furnace.

What are some other examples of washing windows in the rain? I think our president can come up with a few, starting with that great, glass edifice otherwise known as Iraq. How about solving our energy needs by drilling for more oil? That is advanced window washing. Or a Palestinian suicide bomber thinking one more violent act will finally make the Israelis wise up and leave? Futility at its finest. Closer to home, I can recall how my father used to patiently explain to my grandmother, who had advanced Alzheimer’s, the names of all her grandchildren over and over again, as if, through repetition, she’d eventually come to her senses and remember. Some serious Windex there.

Question du jour: what examples of washing windows in the rain can you think of? Don’t you agree we should adopt that as a common expression? I challenge you to put it into a sentence sometime this week.


I’ve gotten very lax about responding to comments on my blog (which, by the way, are all read by me and very much appreciated), but here is a comment from my last post that deserves special recognition. At one point in the post, I brought up the subject of last words and how not all are probably as dramatic or quotable as the people saying them might have wished. Here is what Beth wrote:

“I think about ‘last words’ a lot. I wonder if that’s the neurotic in me. You know, when Mother Theresa died the doctor said she complained of pain and the nun at her side said Mother Theresa actually said, "I love Jesus." So, I think when you’re famous, the people who love you most do some major editing.

“‘I just shat myself’ becomes ‘I see a bright light and a beautiful angel with outstretched arms.’”

I laughed myself silly for about ten minutes after reading that one.


Blogger LL said...

Now that's a pretty good post.

I must admit that I'm forced to wash windows in the rain occasionally, and that I fully realize the futility of whatever it is I'm doing but sometimes, you do what you're told whether it makes sense or not.

word ver: zimply -- now that's a word I think there should be a real definition to. Anyone have any ideas?

5:35 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Washing windows in the rain. I really like the sound of it and doggone it, I am going to use it this week.

My husband does renovation every weekend. The dusting and cleaning I used to do around him was DEFINITELY a case of washing windows in the rain. Now I just wait until the weekend is done and then I dig into the mess.

I am so glad I could make you laugh, Mr. Schprock. Makes my whole morning. =)

7:07 AM  
Blogger Biff Spiffy said...

Awesome post, agreed on the phrase. Gets my vote. Can't think of the perfect way to apply it, but 'depending on MS Word for spell check' might be passable.

Glad you're not dead.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

"Washing windows in the rain" is such a perfect turn of a phrase that I find it strange that nobody has come up with it before. You are truly a brilliant man, Schprockie.

My brother actually bitched about this recently. A couple of months ago at the height of winter the building where he works had some poor guy out on the window washing platform with snow and wind. What a complete waste of time and money my brother thought right before he sent an e-mail to the CEO.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Farrago said...

It's the same as "you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't."

Or maybe it's just similar.

Kinda the boat my father is in right now. He's elderly and weak. He has lung cancer. If they do chemo, it'll likely kill him. If they operate, if they do radiation, he'll likely die. If they leave it alone, he'll die.

No matter which side of the building, rain's getting on the windows.

7:57 PM  
Blogger b o o said...

everyday with my boss, who does not remember what he said to me an hour/a day ago, but kept insisting that its difficult to get to me and that i'm not paying attention.

maybe i'm dense.

maybe i'm doomed to wash windows in the rain with this insufferable fool at work.


p/s so nice to see u lurking around. sending u buttplug hugs

pp/s that outta get them talking :)

5:11 AM  
Blogger SzélsőFa said...

washing windows in the rain seems an appropriate description to events/activities you mentioned.
I will take the challeneg and use it in a sentence before the week ends.

But the story you cite from a sci-fi novel was fantastic. I love it.
Can you tell me the source, pls?

1:34 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

There's an old country song--and by old, I mean ten years or so old--that goes something like: "I could wash my car in the rain, change my new guitar strings, mow the yard, just the same, as I did yesterday, I don't need to wasted my time, crying over you, I've got better things to do." I seem to recall the expression "straighten my stereo wires" too.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Biff Spiffy said...

I heard another phrase yesterday, and immediately thought of this post. I was helping a friend change a tire, and don't recall the exact circumstances, but he blurted out "It's like wiping before you poop!"

Yep. That's similar.

7:14 AM  
Blogger magnetbabe said...

Yes, I too like the phrase "washing windows in the rain" and like the examples you cited. I'd also like to suggest that the phrase also inherently imply the ridiculousness of bureaucracy as was hinted at by other commenters. Sometimes we do futile things simply because we are told to and it is easier than arguing. Can't you picture that poor window washer saying to his boss, "But it's raining! What good is it to wash windows in the rain!" To which the boss just snidely replies, "Who do you think you are, a mailman?"

9:41 AM  
Blogger Flash said...

I can totally see my grandma using that one.

"Hey, stop painting your little brother blue. It's like washing windows in the rain!"

Then I would stand their stupefied, brush in hand...wondering what the hell she meant by that then 20 years down the line fully understand the meaning behind it and realizing my grandmother was off her rocker.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Shatterfist said...

Apparently the busiest Dunkin Donuts in the country is a few blocks from my neighborhood. I cut through Braintree, which ADDS TIME to whatever I'm doing, and come out next to the donut shop - convincing myself I've saved time when all I'm really doing is 'washing windows in the rain'.

Zimply (adj) - done quickly and simply, requiring almost no thought, liken to washing windows in the rain

8:59 AM  
Blogger Irb said...

"Washing Windows in the Rain" has kind of a melancholy George Jones country-western sound to it. Plus, it rhymes with "pain" and "train," so it's just begging for a song!

I used to work as a programmer for Brinker International (restaurants, not armored cars) and we did a lot of foul-weather window washing. Our director was fond of saying things like, "You guys start coding. I'll go find out what the requirements are."

1:41 PM  
Blogger briliantdonkey said...

Where were you 25 years ago when I needed this phrase?! What mom? make my bed? I am just going to sleep in it again tonight, that is like washing windows in the rain dontcha think? Could have worked who knows. The best example I can think of is taking a girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife back over and over again hoping the result will be different this time. Washing windows in the rain.

I like it.


9:32 AM  
Blogger Terri said...

heehee, are you always this funny? I guess I'll have to come back and find out.
"Washing windows in the rain" certainly sounds like an expression that should've been around for years.
I'll see if I can use it in a sentence this week. It's sort of like trying to teach a pig to sing, but you don't have an annoyed pig at the end of it.

8:09 AM  

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