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Essay

Steel Yourself: I Don’t Iron

Believe it or not, at a time when there are so many more important things to worry about, there are still people who profess disbelief or even declare themselves shocked when they learn I don’t iron. And not only don’t iron but can’t iron–couldn’t if my life depended on it.

“You mean–“

“Yes. I do mean!”

My deficiency in this area makes not one iota of difference to my quality of life. It has been so long since I went anywhere where the sharpness of the crease in my trousers or the crispness of my shirt collar mattered that I can’t remember the decade, let alone the year. Possibly back in the early Chretien years? But what does it matter?

What does anything about ironing matter, really, unless one is a symphony musician or conductor, or a headwaiter, or an entertainer who spends a lot of time on the rubber chicken circuit? In all of which cases, the odds are that the individual in question can afford to have the items in question sent out, to be pressed professionally.

In my view, no one should ever iron anything unless he or she is being paid to do it. Quite simply, it’s the work of a galley slave.

My motto today, as it has been for decades, is “If it’s important enough to have ironed, it’s important enough to be sent out.” I have no more use for an iron in my house than I would for a drill press, a turret lathe, or a circular saw. Granted, I suppose that if I had to, I could use an iron as a light weight for shoulder and arm conditioning. But a 5-pound dumbbell answers to that purpose far better, and takes up less space into the bargain.

How did I come by my blind spot on ironing? Honestly, and at a very early age. As a boy, I saw my family’s sweet, kind cleaning woman, Izelia, a black woman who’d been brought up in Georgia, tackling huge piles of ironing every week. Occasionally one of my school shirts or one of my sisters’ dresses would find its way into the ironing basket. But mostly, that basket was filled with sheets (all white in those days) and my father’s shirts for work (also all white).

Although Izelia would often hum a little song to try to keep herself cheerful, I could tell she didn’t enjoy this work one bit. My younger sister, who spent more time observing Izelia than I did, claims she more than once saw her deliberately burn herself with the iron. Never having seen this happen, I can’t say whether this was true or not. But it would not have been beyond the realm of possibility.

Seeing poor Izelia quite literally slaving away, week after week, on these huge piles of sheets and shirts, I vowed, at the age of no more than 12, that ironing would never become part of my life.

Only once did my resolve crumble, and then only briefly. As a freshman at Amherst College, I was preparing to go out of town to a prom with my new girlfriend, when I noticed that my summer suit was badly in need of pressing. For this occasion, an unpressed suit really would not do. I located the iron and ironing board available to everyone in the dorm, and gingerly started to work on the suit jacket’s collar. Within 15 seconds, a trail of smoke was rising from the collar.

If an unpressed suit would not have done, a charred suit really would not have done. In terror, I stopped work and unplugged the iron. As it happened, one of the maids employed to clean our dormitory happened to be walking by at just that moment. I explained my plight to her. In two minutes, we had struck a deal. She would iron the suit, and I would give her $2. Fifteen minutes later, I had hung the suit back on its hanger. I was able to proceed with my trip to Ohio without further incident, at least of the sartorial variety.

This would be the last time I even attempted to iron anything. Had I ever been remotely tempted to do so, which I most assuredly was not, the memory of that plume of smoke rising from the collar of my nearly-new Brooks Brothers suit would have been more than enough to stop me.

My one remaining encounter with ironing saw me involved not as a participant, but as a spectator. Late in my graduate school career, I’d become involved with a fellow graduate student named Louise (not her real name). It was a passionate but stormy and seriously troubled relationship.

One dank late November afternoon, at a time when Louise was on my case for pretty well anything and everything, I came back from the university to discover her furiously ironing a big pile of underwear.

“Louise!” I said. “What the hell are you doing?” Even Izelia had never gone so far as to iron our underwear. I’d never in my life seen anyone do such a thing. Noticing the frenetic energy with which Louise was attacking the underwear, I began to wonder if she was seriously mentally ill.

“It’s important to be careful about your appearance when you go up to the Department,” she said.

“I don’t see what underwear has to do with that,” I said. “Nobody’s going to be looking at my underwear. If they are, they shouldn’t be!”

“It matters!” she insisted. “Everything about your outfit matters. Besides, ironing is a great way to release tension. D.H. Lawrence used to do it. I think you should, too!”

Not deeming this last comment worthy of a reply, I put on my coat and hat and stormed out the door, saying “I’ll come back when you’re ready to listen to reason!” If only I had thought to say, before marching off to the nearest bar, that since Lawrence only lived to age 45 and was not the happiest of campers during those 45 years, he hardly seemed a useful role model!

Later–much later, in fact–I would learn that up through the 1960s it had been fairly common, though by no means universal, for Maritime women to iron their family’s underwear. But the discovery did nothing to change my attitude toward ironing. If anything, it reinforced my view of ironing as a kind of penal servitude. And I would continue, and have continued, to regard ironing underwear as an expression of some kind of mental illness.

Thankfully, the episode with Louise was the last time I ever saw anyone ironing underwear. If I ever see such a sight again, I shall run as fast as I can in the opposite direction.

Somehow, though, I suspect I’ll be spared that sight. Craziness, these days, takes different forms.

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