The Nobility of the Napkin Folder


In 1977 I did a paper for my Human Factors in Engineering class; its title was “Work’s End.” In it I predicted that, given the advent of industrial robots and the mundanity and ignobility of conventional blue-collar toil, manual labor and “work” in the conventional sense would not last the century. The instructor, University of Arizona professor Russell Ferrell, annotated the B grade he gave my paper with his impression that though my premise was interesting, he didn’t think we’d get all the bugs out of “the Problem of Production” by my deadline.

And here it is, 2013, and part of my current job is folding napkins for an independent-living retirement community, and I am glad I was wrong. Of the many ways to render aid and comfort to the aged, hand-folding napkins to enhance their dining experience is seemingly trifling, but circumstantial evidence that they are special. I feel privileged to fold those hundred per night. They are a lovely purple, which also connotes the specialness of royalty. (I’ve color-enhanced my drawing to make it match that hue as close as I can.)

I imagine some readers smiling and thinking how pathetic this particular napkin-folder must be, trying to make such a drab endeavor out to be noble. I stand by my notion.

Here are the words to the acrostic, changing the spelling of UFO to its phonetic pronunciation to avoid confusion:

Nimble Jack, be deft–don’t goof
As e l u s i v e as an Oof-O
Perfect crease ain’t taught in school
Knappa: foe from Chester Gould
If i n e p t i t u d e ‘ s severe
Nab some cloth & dry a tear

NOTE: Chester Gould was the cartoonist who created Dick Tracy. He also created a multitude of bizarre characters–see the Warren Beatty movie Dick Tracy for samples. Here I’ve imagined Knappa, a villain who employs napkins in the binding of his kidnapping victims.

I hope the subtext of my page and these notes comes across, but I’m not proud: let me explicate. We are all headed for old age, if we’re lucky. We all need taking care of, and we get it, if we’re lucky. Part of being taken care of is life’s assurance that we deserve attention and dignity. The little touches of assurance may loom as large as the big ones, especially for people facing mortality.

  1. Folding paper bring origami to mind, that evokes Japan, and the noble work of assisting the aged leads to the notion of dignity, even to the deceased. Which then evokes Departures, on of the most wonderful films of the last decade.

    My parents live in an independent-living retirement home, in an ever increasing precarious way, and I am very glad that there are people such as you that are doing the noble and discreet work of helping them live the twilight of their lives in dignity and respect.

    Michel Lamontagne

    • Monsieur Lamontagne, I have just got to meet you and shake your hand some day. You understand and empathize and relate so well. Thanks for a truly quality response which makes my day, friend!

  2. I enjoy your posts tremendously; I’m glad my replies can reflect some of this enjoyment back to you! And I also have fun writing the replies, thinking about the various issues you touch in your work. So it’s a very win win situation all around, I guess!

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