Day 105: My Dad’s Not Insane: On Tragedy, Insanity, and Dirty Dishes

by Tom Noonan

My dad has the very bad and borderline poisonous habit of overloading our dishwasher.  Like most chores around our house, the job of unloading the dishwasher falls on the first person who would get something out of it, which usually means it falls on the first person who tries to eat without realizing the only clean plates have just finished drying from their suffocating rinse cycle.  Then it just becomes a simple game of “Can I eat, clean the plate and the necessary silverware, and return them to the dishwasher before anyone realizes what I’ve done?”  If you succeed, then you can sit comfortably, smugly biding time until the terrible fate you’ve avoided befalls its next hungry victim.  If you fail, then you’re pretty much back to where you started only you did that extra manual labor to get there.  Even if you were eating a suspiciously clingy microwavable lasagna, things could be worse.

The reason unloading the dishwasher has become such a tedious exercise in domesticated normalcy has to do with my dad’s bad habit.  Unlike most chores in our house, my dad insists that he is the only one who can decide when the dishwasher is ready to be run.  Overseeing every dish placed inside his claustrophobic kingdom, my dad won’t give the green light on a good soaping until every possible crevice is filled with something ceramic or milk stained.  If it didn’t make me feel so weird saying it, I might compare this habit to food fetishist Tetris.  It’s gotten so bad that juice glasses come out of the rinse cycle sheltering chicken bits and most knives retain the buttery glaze they acquired during dinner the night before.  In other words, our dishwasher, a very competent, if past its prime, machine, ends up doing more damage than actual cleaning, and, despite the mounting evidence, my dad refuses to admit that there’s a problem.  Recently, a few moments after picking what looked like a few broccoli hairs from a glass of milk, my brother asked our dad why he doesn’t just follow the clearly specified parameters set up by the actual size of the machine.  His response was defensive and focused on the money and water saved making up for the “infrequent” reappearances of displaced, week-old food.

What it comes down to, or, at least, what this anecdotal introduction seems to come down to, is this idea that the line between habit and insanity is paper-thin. Insanity is most often, and most frustratingly, defined as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  Ignoring the problematic nature of that definition for a moment, it is easy to see how this line can be created.  If we accept that definition for insanity, then defining habit as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result” makes the distinction between the two seem purely based in semantics.  In short, it makes us believe we all have the capacity to one day suddenly become insane and marks our current psychological state as constantly volatile.

And we find comfort in the thinness of this line.  It makes tragedies like what happened in Newtown, Aurora, or at the Boston Marathon have a relatable context.  The pillars of smoke settling above a dissolving crowd become reminders of how close we all are to this type of action, that we too could turn to violence and expect a different result.  It’s also why we are obsessed with the chases, the manhunts set against familiar scenery, armed officers washing across populated cul-de-sacs.  We want the kid responsible pulled from a boat in the middle of suburbia because it might make more sense, it might help us heal and patch up the violent thoughts we had towards him.  If he hides like we hide, maybe we should be more careful about the movies we watch and the video games we play.

But the thing about this line is that it makes us all insane.  If we are really constantly on the edge, then there is no difference between holding on and freefall, between killing twenty-five innocent people and watching the replay.  The thing about this line is that if you believe in it, you’re letting these people off too easy because, as it turns out, my dad isn’t insane.

See, if this line were as thin as we think, then my dad would have crossed over a long time ago.  If we stick with this absurdly simple definition of insanity, not legally, that is, but socially, then my dad has been legitimately insane since I’ve been conscious enough to notice.  But overloading the dishwasher isn’t the same as a mother without her child, just like you aren’t the same person as Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  We need to be less comfortable with these tragedies, understand that when they happen they are not simply human fault, not evidence of our own psychological instability, but something else, something worse.  If we are ever going to rid ourselves of these tragedies, we need to talk about them properly, understand them in the right context, and learn to recognize the difference between dirty dishes and mass murder.  It’s time we change the way we casually dismiss insanity as “the way it goes” and actually get to know it.  It’s time we stop doing things the same way and expecting a different result.