Dishing It Out

Why have dishes and silverware if you’re not going to use them?

That was the inside joke at our house to justify a sink cluttered with dirty plates and bowls, coffee mugs stuffed with so much flatware they resembled metallic hedgehogs or some found-art installation. My wife and I both dislike washing dishes, so for years, we simply wouldn’t do it until we had to. When one of us would inevitably be forced to stir coffee with a butter knife or contemplate eating cereal with a serving ladle, we would resign ourselves to the task and invest two or three hours into cleaning and returning every item to its respective shelf or drawer. It was a massive undertaking, but it only takes one serving of coffee from a Tupperware container to know that you’ve reached the end of your dishware tether.

While we were equally willing to build mock city skylines with piles of dishes of varying heights, I am better able to tolerate dismantling the towers — it satisfies my latent obsessive/compulsive tendencies, the dish rack becoming a blank canvas and filling every square inch an art form. An hour into excavating the porcelain midden we formerly used as our sink, the dish rack bowed under the weight of its contents, items propped and dangling with such precarious complexity that it called to mind the finale of a Cirque de Soleil show. At this point I would back away slowly and say to my wife in my best Nigel Tufnell, “Don’t touch it. Don’t even point at it.”

When I was staying at my Mom’s house this past summer, I noticed that she washed the dishes every night. Once the food-consumption portion of the evening was done (which for her meant “dinner”, while in our house that means “post-prime-time chip raid”) she would quickly and efficiently clean the kitchen before settling down to relax for the evening. As a result, every morning, the kitchen was spotless and inviting. Her favorite coffee mug was sitting next to the coffee maker, not buried under the rubble of a three-course meal. I know, it was a simple, deliberate routine that made this happen, yet every morning it seemed like magic.

Of course, applying this simple, deliberate routine to my own home was akin to telling a would-be dieter, “So you just eat healthier food and less of it.” Yes, simple to describe — the challenge is in the execution. I have things I want to write, Words with Friends games to play, bad TV I need to watch then scoff at — there simply wasn’t time for washing dishes every day. Anyone who would argue otherwise does not understand the depths of my laziness. (To help you put it in perspective, I watch reruns of Chopped. I know what dishes they’re creating, I know who wins, and there is nothing to be gained from watching it. But it is so much easier to watch it than to get up and do something productive.)

By the beginning of Winter, an opportunity for changing my mindset finally arrived — my wife’s birthday. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’m not a great gift-giver. I fret over what to get her every year, wanting to give her something that’s creative, thoughtful, useful, and not an item of clutter. Along with the creative gift (read: clutter) that my daughter and I made for her, I also made her a pledge: She would not have to wash dishes for an entire year. This might not be a fun gift to pull out of box, but if ever there was a gift that keeps on giving, this was it. Needless to say, she loved the idea of the gift, even if she was skeptical about delivery.

But I’m delivering. It required a complete lifestyle change, but knowing I have a few of my mom’s genes in me, I knew it was possible. I abandoned my previous ignore-as-long-as-possible approach and made dish washing part of my daily ritual. The gift was intended to benefit my wife, but I’ve realized essential benefits for myself:

  • I’m smarter, which has nothing to do with dishes but everything to do with the audio books I listen to while I wash. It is so nice to have a warm voice whispering some writer’s brilliant words into my ears, transporting me to some faraway place where no one is scrubbing meat residue from the bottom of a no-it’s-not-non-stick pan.
  • I’m not dumber, which is how I often feel when I watch television. I’m not against TV as a media form, as there are many thought-provoking and informative shows available to the viewer. But in my case, I’m just as likely to watch Wipeout, the obstacle-course competition that celebrates contestants being bludgeoned by giant padded apparatuses. (Mindless? Yes. Fun? Also yes.)
  • There’s magic in the house, just like there was at my Mom’s house. Every morning, I step into the kitchen and revel in the cleanliness, knowing we won’t need to move a pile of plates to find space for making our daughter’s lunch. You might think this would eventually cease to be noteworthy, but 60 days in, it is a daily delight. And since I’m not the type to take the good things in my life for granted, I expect this will remain a delight.

It hasn’t been a seamless transition — my hands are getting dry and cracked, and I’m struggling to find a dish glove that affords the dexterity I prefer when washing dishes. But the bottom line is this: My wife is happier, and isn’t that the ultimate goal of a birthday gift?

You may be expecting a feel-good-movie ending to this essay, a thoughtful summarization of how the value I’ve found in this finite, focused task has expanded to other parts of my life. Nope. My office desk still resembles a paper-only time capsule, my workshop looks the before picture on a power tool safety poster, and the basement continues to look like an amateur audition for Hoarders.

But c’mon, my favorite coffee mug is always clean. How much magic can one house accommodate?

3 response to "Dishing It Out"

  1. By: Christine Posted: 02/19/2012

    I live alone, so I tend to use paper plates a lot. Cuts down on the washing, you know? But when I do use my china (and crystal and silver) (and just for me!), I do the dishes as soon as I’ve finished the after-dinner coffee. The same if I have company for dinner ~ I really can’t stand a dirty kitchen. Or bathroom. The rest of the house can be a bit messy, but not those two rooms.

  2. By: Anonymous Posted: 03/29/2012

    I went to the kitchen this morning and turned in disgust at my mountain of dishes. i crawled back in bed and found your stories. i guess I’ll do them when i get up. Damn you Bill! Love your gift to your lovely wife, too. you’re so good ….

  3. By: William Reagan Posted: 03/29/2012

    Christine, I agree about those two rooms. (And many of my other rooms demonstrate that attitude.) 😉

    Anonymous (who is another Christine), I’ve been at it for almost four months, and now it takes a much smaller pile of dishes to disgust me. But four months in, I still delight in walking into a clean kitchen.

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