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Thursday, July 27, 2017 12:10 am

To have and to mold

PHOTO COURTESY AMY ALKON
Amy Alkon
My otherwise wonderful husband always leaves his wet towel on the bed (on my side!). I’ve asked him to stop doing this countless times, but I don’t think he’s being passive-aggressive or anything. I think he just spaces out after showering. How can I get him to remember?  –Soggy

It’s good for a man to have goals, though ideally not one that involves growing a fern out of your comforter.

As you appear to understand, the problem isn’t ill will; it’s “I, Robot.” The first time your husband wondered “Where do I put this wet towel?” – perhaps at age 10 – his brain said, “Easy peasy…just drop it right there on the bed.” Sadly, it seems his superhero bedspread didn’t pipe up: “Superman’s got a ton to do today, and flying your wet towel over to the hamper is not on his agenda.”

Our brain is an efficiency expert. Figuring things out the first time around (a la “what should I do with this towel?”) takes a bunch of energy. But, as neuroscientist Donald Hebb pointed out (in somewhat more neuroscientific terms), as you do an action over and over, your brain goes, “Oh, that again.” The trigger for the action – in this case, approaching the bed (while in a towel, ready to get dressed) – becomes automatic. Automatic means there’s no stopping to muse, “Wait! I have a wife now, and she’s threatening to Saran Wrap the bed.” There’s only the old familiar launch code: “Bed!” – cueing “Drop wet towel here!”

This automation thing – with thinking removed from the equation – is the reason nagging or even asking nicely before or after the fact is so often useless in changing behavior. You need to break in to the automatic sequence as it’s in progress (when he gets to the bed), kind of like an air traffic controller coming in over the plane’s intercom – “Attention Southwest two-two-niner…”

Interrupting the trigger sequence allows you to send a yoo-hoo to areas of his prefrontal cortex, the brain’s department of rational thought – asking them to kindly wake the hell up and take over from the basal ganglia and other parts of the brain’s department of automation.

No, I’m not suggesting you stand guard by the bed like one of those decorative architectural lions, waiting for wet towel time. And hiring one of those street-corner sign spinners would probably be both impractical and a little creepy.

To grab your husband’s attention in a positive way, I suggest collecting cartoons (like one of my faves, “Bizarro,” by Dan Piraro) and leaving one marked “Towel alert! xo” on the area of the bed he turns into terrycloth swampland. (Pair it with a battery-operated flashing light if he ends up dropping his towel on top of it.) The cartoon should break him out of his auto-daze, reminding him to return the wet towel to its ancestral home, Ye Olde Towel Rack. (If there is something missing for the two of you in bed, it probably isn’t mildew.)
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