Dishwashing elements of life: Earth, wind, fire and water

At long last, I’ve finally found something that former President Obama and I have in common. Unlike Obama, I didn’t go to Harvard, wasn’t editor of the Law Review, haven’t served as a U.S. Senator, didn’t write a best-selling book and have never been elected president. But in a recent interview on 60 Minutes, Obama said that he liked washing dishes. (His wife, Michelle, challenged him on that claim. I am a firm believer in Ken Kesey’s observation that just because something didn’t really happen, doesn’t mean it’s not true).

It’s nice to have something in common with the Leader of the Free World. I think the only thing I had in common with other former presidents is a passion for clearing brush, something that both Ronald Reagan and the younger George Bush also enjoyed.

I don’t know exactly what it is about washing dishes that I find so comforting. There’s the obvious sensory and tactile pleasures of the hot soapy water and the sensuous squeezability of a fresh, clean sponge. But I think what really attracts me to washing dishes is the Zen-like appeal of the process itself.

First there is the stack of dirty dishes. Following the mindful and repetitive scrubbing and rinsing of those dishes, one is left with a clean and empty counter. That which was dirty is now clean. What was previously in disorder is restored to harmony. From chaos comes catharsis. Dirty yin, clean yang. Dishwashing incorporates all the essential elements of life – earth, fire, water and, depending on the meal, wind.

There are other more tangible benefits for the person who volunteers to wash dishes. When clearing the table, a decision must be made about whether to save, throw out or consume small amounts of leftovers. That same opportunity presents itself in connection with small amounts of wine in the bottom of opened bottles. In such cases, “waste-not, want not” becomes my middle name except for beets or broccoli.

When washing dishes, I like to select an appropriate musical score to accompany the process, and will sometimes turn on the tail end of a college football or basketball game to watch with the sound off. If you are doing the dishes as a team, you can extend the dinner conversation while progressing pleasantly through the cleanup. And if dinner guests were involved, dishwashing provides an excellent opportunity to debrief on the behavior, clothing selection and relative hilarity of the hairstyles of the departed guests.

I come by my dishwashing skills naturally. The first job I ever had was a busboy and dishwasher in a restaurant while I was in high school. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have to say I was a natural. Not only could I sort, rinse and wash bus trays full of dishes in record time, but I could do so while keeping clean dishes flowing into the kitchen, refilling the tuna and lettuce tubs for the chefs, breaking down cardboard boxes and emptying trash. I was into multitasking before multitasking became the norm.

For people who enjoy washing dishes like Obama and me, Thanksgiving and Easter are the Super Bowl and the World Cup of dishwashing. Not only are there more than the usual number of dishes to be washed but there is the thrilling prospect of washing plates and utensils that only make one or two appearances a year – the good china gravy boat, the giant turkey platter, the fluted champagne glasses.

I have much to be thankful for this season, including the prospect of the peculiar joy that comes from a countertop full of dirty dishes from an Easter dinner, a sink full of hot soapy water, and the time and space and company to bring them all together.

Happy Easter!

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper. This one is from his “Classics Files” that originally ran years ago.