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Martin Marks Headshot

In Soft Water

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Back when I lived in Baltimore, there was a man named Mike, a nice enough guy save
that when he went off his meds, he'd turn into Crazy Mike, an alter ego that liked to
wander around Charles Village screaming at the top of his lungs about how flying
monkeys were stealing his every thought. I begin with Crazy Mike's cautionary tale
because even though I've moved to a bigger city, with arguably even crazier people, I've
felt a special kinship to him over this past year. While some might be up in arms over
the New York City outdoor smoking ban that took effect today, I, rather, choose to focus
my attention on a set of problems that seem to have been plaguing our city for the better
part of a year, and that may prove just as imaginary as Crazy Mike's airborne, thought-
stealing simians.

To begin at the beginning: over the course of several weeks last year, I started to observe
a series of strange phenomena. My skin was oilier than usual and my hair was matted
down; my teeth weren't brushing and my laundry wasn't washing. At a dinner party, the
hostess's hands were still stained from a dessert she'd been making earlier in the day.
Several friends offhandedly mentioned that their skin had started to itch. Another friend
sent me a text message saying that she'd just woken from a dream where dogs were
barking at her because she hadn't showered. The spots on my kitchen sink and shower
curtain and bathroom faucet had suddenly vanished. Though some might have had
difficulty connecting the spots, I knew the common source of these seemingly disparate
peculiarities.

It seemed as though the water in New York had gone soft. Just how soft? As soft as a
sponge cake being carried to a Save-the-Arts rally at a sustainable farmer's market in
northern Vermont by a liberal pacifist vegan who forgot to take his Viagra -- in other
words, unimaginably, ridiculously soft.

For those unfamiliar with nature's most infuriating substance, soft water is water
that does nothing. Absolutely nothing. Wash your face? Shampoo your hair? Clean
your dishes? Have rational thoughts other than "Why is this water so soft"? Think of
everything that water does, and that's what soft water doesn't do. And that super-foamy
soap lather of preternatural intensity, as soft water so teasingly yields? It doesn't clean
anything. Not a thing. This -- coupled with the resulting layer of slime that coats your
dishes, pots, pans, silverware, underwear, t-shirts, arms and between-the-toes regions --
makes it the worst thing ever, all thanks to soft water's low PPM.

PPM is an acronym for parts per million, which, as I later discovered, pertains to the
kaleidoscopic array of minerals found in everyday tap water. Hard water has a greater
concentration of these minerals, thus allowing it to act as an effective agent between soap
enzymes, body oils and water in a process called emulsification. The specific chemical
reactions of emulsification have something to do with ions -- very complicated, very tiny
little things that I'd be able to describe in greater detail had I followed my father's advice and taken AP Chemistry.

Over last year's Memorial Day Weekend, while other Manhattanites were getting ready
for their picnics and their barbeques, I did what only the most foolhardy city dwellers
would do -- I called 311, and spent an eternity (i.e., a little over fifteen minutes) on
the phone with them. The operator didn't understand the nature of my complaint, or
even what I was complaining about. I tried to tell her that I wasn't complaining, I was
attempting to get to the bottom of a mystery. This didn't help. She transferred me to
several specialists, none of whom seemed all that special at anything. While on the
phone, I learned that alternate parking had been suspended, that the beaches were open on
Saturday, that garbage and mail pick-up would be suspended and that courts and schools
would be closed on Monday. I did not, however, learn the source of our overly soft water.

And so, considering myself an intrepid researcher, I removed the human element from
the equation and began a series of frantic, hyper-specific Google searches, putting
quotation marks around my search terms, using plus and minus signs, plunging into site
specific queries, combing through news and local results within the past day, week, and
month. As a result of these searches, I'm now well versed in the proposed soft drink tax,
an unfortunate turn of events considering I neither consume nor bathe in Mountain Dew
Code Red.

As I descended into the shadowy depths of the general Googlesphere, I found articles
on the acclimatization of zebrafish and milk production in dairy cows. A gardening
website led me to a group of aquarists whose online thoughts on the subject of correcting
the pH balance in reef system tanks led me to a bread making site, which led me to a
beer making site, which led me to several more bread making sites, the commonly held
wisdom being that soft water is a mysteriously incurable condition having to do with a
lack of calcium and magnesium.

Surprisingly, there are some people who espouse the benefits of overly soft water. They
say it leads to luxurious hair and supple skin by preserving natural body oils, that it
saves on detergent and makes your appliances last longer, that the just-been-licked-by-
kittens sensation one associates with soft water is the cleanest clean a cleanie can be. My
grandmother, with her subtle, understated British powers of observation, has a word to
describe these people: idiots. (I'll admit that there probably are some people who do have
a genuine need to soften their water. These are the people I choose to ignore.)

If we do indeed have soft water, then there's some good news and some bad news. The
good news is that after roughly two-to-three weeks' exposure, we're never going to have
to buy moisturizer or conditioner again. The bad news? Ever see Dawn of the Dead? In
all likelihood, that army of bloodthirsty, flesh-eating zombies was the terrible human
byproduct of softened water. (Please re-read the first paragraph.)

We had a lot to worry about last summer -- the Attic destabilization of the European
economy, the Keystone Kops-like handling of the Gulf oil spill, the perplexing situation
in the Persian Gulf (by which I mean Sex and the City 2), a ridiculously named Icelandic
volcano disrupting air traffic and possibly heralding Mothra's fiery return. These are a
sampling of what was going on back then, and bear but one thing in common; they are
all far more important than what I have just discussed. I never did get to the bottom of
the mystery, and our water still remains inexplicably, unbearably soft. Even though my
passion for the hunt has largely run dry, isn't it heartening to know that in this day and
age, we still have the ability to conjure up our own sets of imaginary flying monkeys,
whether they're celestial baboons attempting to steal one's thoughts, or, as I like to think
of them, winged capuchins tinkering with the PPM of our city's water.

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