Wednesday, March 04, 2015

carrying crockery

"Efficiency and inefficiency exist happily side by side and both have a place in our lives. we may wish to change things in order to have greater comfort or security or in order to have more time for other desirable things. Greater efficiency may well help us towards these ends. But it should never be thought an end in itself.

Thus when I am given the task of clearing the supper things from the dining table to the kitchen I will use my hands for the purpose, carrying it may be a plate in one hand and two forks in the other. Lesley points out that if instead I used a tray I would be able to carry more things at once and so need to make fewer journeys. Maybe. But why she should assume that I wish to make fewer journeys? I enjoy walking to and fro between rooms, picking up something and putting it down. I find it physically satisfying and a simple enough task to allow my thoughts to wander elsewhere. Whereas piling things up on a tray and fearing all the time that a cup or a glass will topple over the edge requires all my care and attention."
~ Christopher Milne, The Open Garden: A Story With Four Essays,  taken from Efficiency and the Oil Beetle

During the last week before Christmas as I completed some hand sewing, I watched the original Cheaper By the Dozen in which the father, Frank Gilbreth spends most of his time trying to do routine tasks faster, even if by only a few seconds.
Is it faster to button up his shirt starting at the bottom of the shirt or at the top? His wife stands by with a stopwatch ready to assist him and help him discover which technique saves the most time. He then shares his findings on efficiency with universities and lecture halls. I enjoyed the movie, but you can imagine that when I read this above passage, the silliness of speedy shirt buttoning immediately came to mind.
There are ways to complete mundane tasks as Milne shows in the above passage, that do not require our utmost concentration and therefore allow us to ponder other things.  And while we in the West enjoy a relative measure of efficiency and time-keeping, the trains run on time, we also rush around a lot, obsessed with saving time and super-efficiency. Milne makes the case that we can enjoy both ideas at the appropriate times.
Or perhaps it is only the dwarfs cleaning Bilbo Baggins' kitchen who can carry towering piles of plates and precariously perched bottles while heartily singing of spoiling the crockery but in fact working quickly and safely until the job is done.

Chip the glasses and crack the plates! 
Blunt the knives and bend the fork! 
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates - 
Smash the bottles and burn the corks! 

 Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat! 
Splash the wine on every door! 

Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl; 
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll! 

That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So carefully! carefully with the plates!

(If you care to listen to Tolkien singing this himself, see this previous post.)


  1. This is great! There are so many ideas around us if we but open our eyes. I often don't observe, but appreciate the reminder!

    1. Dawn, thanks for bring a faithful reader and commentator. :)

  2. Christopher Milne?! As in Christopher Robin? I had no idea he wrote anything! I will be looking this up. :)

    I love the connections you tie together here. :) My own thoughts on repetition being actually healthy rather than maddening follow similar lines. I tend toward loving efficiency, but I'm trying to stretch myself out of that mindset.

    1. Yes, Christopher Robin Milne wrote a trilogy of memoirs of his upbringing and adult life and a book of essays. I have really enjoyed his writing style even if he was a dedicated atheist. Thanks for commenting, it means a lot.

  3. Loved this thought. So true. There can be great delight, perhaps comfort, found in the tedious and routine.


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