Most evenings after dinner, the kids retire to the playroom for their nightly show, each with a bowl of sliced fruit and their choice of a small chocolate treat. They use those small plastic bowls we’ve had for probably a decade, the ones that are nearly indestructible, easy to rinse or toss onto the top rack of the dishwasher, and color-coded so each child knows which bowl is intended for whom. After the show concludes, the kids have been instructed to bring their bowls to the kitchen, and at some point we upgraded this responsibility for the older kids to not only bring in their bowls, but to also rinse them and put them in the dishwasher. On one of the first nights after the upgrade, my daughter followed through, and I was happy to lay eyes on her pink bowl in the dishwasher. At first I thought how interesting it was that she had placed it with the concavity facing the rear of the appliance, while it’s my habit to nestle bowls with their bottoms to the back. For a moment I wondered at how similarly and differently our two brains operate, hers and mine, and then I bent over and looked in the dishwasher again, only to realize that what I’d thought I was seeing at first was actually an optical illusion. Here’s the scene from the original angle:
If you imagine that you’re looking at the bottom of that pink bowl, it appears to be placed with its outer rim facing the darkness back there. But upon investigation, this is the situation I was actually beholding:
She’d put the bowl right there on the top rack, just as I’d requested, obviously lacking the knowledge of how dishwashers function. I mean, the bowl is stored upright in the cabinet. It’s served with the convex surface facing the table. In the sink, it’s rinsed and soaked with inside up. It’s not hard to guess why she’d think to follow suit here. As a parent, there are countless instances when you realize how unintuitive life can be, how so much isn’t abundantly obvious and needs to be taught or learned. The experience of parenthood is a lot like this: how could one know that that bowl would end up filled with water and the silt of foodstuffs if it went through a cycle in that orientation unless one either understood the physics of dishwashers or had been given articulate instruction regarding the bowl’s position to favor the desired outcome?
I thought for a few minutes about how to approach sharing this information with her when I realized I’d gone about the responsibility upgrade in the wrong direction. Rather than ask kids to load the dishwasher before they’ve ever unloaded one, perhaps a more productive way to go about it would be to have them unload a clean dishwasher first; that way, they’d understand how the water remains in any crack or crevice that has no method of downward egress. That way they’d know to take the tupperware out and shake it in the sink before putting it in the dish drainer, face up this time, so the water caught in the downturned lips of its edges can evaporate. That way they’d know that when one of the small bowls gets flipped by the upward spray of water while the cycle in running so that it rests with its base facing down, it will collect water in its rounded basin and fail to cooperate with the “dry” portion of the cycle.
Sometimes we have to start at the endpoint and retrace our steps, work backwards through a process, in order to understand how to begin again. Sometimes learning best practices is most effective retroactively, when the ends actually do justify the means, when we have a clear idea about what steps to take to favor fortune. For most aspects of life, of course, this isn’t possible; we can’t get a do-over when it comes to the intractability of time, and our little pink bowls will again and again end up brimming with dishwater, potholes on the road to progress. But in some small ways–like learning to use an appliance–it’s nice to know that you can start at the end to inform the next beginning, to use the understanding of the endgame at the outset. And when things aren’t obvious, when we don’t know which side of a situation is up, sometimes it takes sense to make sense, and the only way forward is back.