At long last, I’ve finally found something that Barack Obama and I have in common. Unlike our next president, 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 of the United States.
But in his recent interview on 60 Minutes, Obama said he liked washing dishes! (The fact that his wife, Michelle, challenged him on that claim does not make it any less valid in my eyes. 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).
So it turns out that President-Elect Obama and I share a passion for washing dishes. Who knew? 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 President-Inept Bush was a passion for clearing brush.
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 squeeze-ability 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 to be enjoyed by the person who volunteers to wash the dishes. When clearing the table, a decision must be made about whether to save, throw out or consume small amounts of leftovers.
This 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 in all cases except those involving 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 clean up. And if dinner guests were involved in the evening, the dishwashing portion of the festivities 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 as a bus boy/dishwasher in a restaurant while I was in high school. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have to say I was a natural at the task. Not only could I sort, rinse and wash bus trays full of dishes in record time, 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 the trash. I was into multitasking before multitasking became the norm.
For people who enjoy washing dishes like our new president and me, Thanksgiving is both the Super Bowl and the World Cup of the dishwashing experience. 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 year, including the prospect of the peculiar joy that comes from a countertop full of dirty dishes, a sink full of hot soapy water, and the time and space and company to bring them all together.
Islander Tom Tyner is an attorney for the Trust for Public Land. He is author of “Skeletons From Our Closet,” a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.