Clean Up Your Act

american indians

“I love this thing,” I tell my daughter.

I’m washing dishes at her house. My wife and I are staying here while the bathrooms at our place are remodeled. She’s home from China for ten days, for our son’s wedding. 

And it’s 3:00 a.m.  Her husband and one of the boys are upstairs sleeping. The little one, still on Shanghai time, a twelve hour time difference, is wide awake. He’s two years old.  He’s just eaten a plate of eggs. By nature I’m an early bird. I’m keeping them company. 

The thing I love, I tell her, is this strainer that lies flat across half her kitchen sink. It looks like a grill.  You wash a dish, lay it on the strainer. When you’re done, you dry the dishes, put them away, roll up the strainer and put it away. 


“Where did it come from?”

“Mom bought it.”

She tells me she thinks washing dishes is gross.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean it’s gross.  They don’t get clean.”

The six weeks we’ve stayed here, I’ve had something of a conversion experience. It’s Zen and the art of washing dishes. I’ve begun to look forward to the job. Some days I grab a stray glass or coffee cup and wash it just for the sheer joy of placing the rinsed item on the rack.

I hold up a sponge now, show her the soap suds. “Of course they get clean,” I say. 

She shakes her head, tells me it’s disgusting. 

“Soap, water, hot rinse,” I say.  “Put them together and what do you get?”

She shakes her head, points at the dishwasher.

When I was a kid, my mother washed dishes every night after supper.  My brother and I took turns drying them. We did not have the benefit of this stylish strainer; from the cabinet under the sink we pulled a clunky old pink, plastic-coated rack that sat on a stiff pink pad that collected drips and drained them into the sink. Washing dishes was a chore. I didn’t like it. I carried this animus into adult life and, when I set up housekeeping, fully embraced the dishwasher. 


All that has changed.

“They’re clean,” I insist.

She reaches out, pulls the wet dish towel from my hand, feels it, smells it. 

“I’m sorry, dad,” she says. “Dishes should go in the dishwasher. They get sterilized.” 

Do we need sterile dishes? 

wellness mamagermy hands

The world is crawling, flying, swimming with bad bugs. In the mid 80’s I read an Atlantic article on the poultry industry and Ronald Reagan’s administration relaxing regulations. The article was titled “Dirty Chicken.” It made an impression. In 2003, in the midst of the SARS scare, products like Purell showed up in the classrooms where I taught. They were everywhere. Elbow bumps replaced hand shakes. I adopted the sleeve sneeze. There’s never been a retreat, even though there’s a robust literature on good bacteria and the perils of being too sanitary.

Around the time I finished high school, hippie culture was in full swing. Nature, the ethos of the time suggested, was good. Nature was also in trouble. We knew something about Dow Chemical and the dioxin floodplain in our backyard. 

But the music, the tie dye and beads, the dope—all that stuff was seductive. With a handful of classmates I walked out of school on the first Earth Day. I said “far out” and flashed the peace sign. (I tried wearing beads but couldn’t make it work.) Soon after graduation, my friend Dan Leman (aka DL) started working for Cliff Compton, a farmer who lived a few miles west of town. Cliff farmed a lot of acres, a lot of nature. Dan drove tractor for him. So did a hippy guy named Wyatt.  

That long summer, on warm evenings we drove out to Wyatt’s rented house on Carter Road. He lived with a hippy woman named Nell. They were married, I think. They had a little girl who tramped around the dusty driveway in a dress and bare feet and watched with curiosity when he father brought out a hash pipe or rolled joints. 


On the Mothers of Invention’s LP “We’re Only in it for the Money,” Frank Zappa lampooned this back-to-nature thing in the song “Flower Punk,” singing: 

“Hey Punk, where you goin’ with that flower in your hand?
Well, I’m goin’ up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.
Hey Punk, where you goin’ with that button on your shirt?
I’m goin’ to the love-in to sit & play my bongos in the dirt”

We knew better than to drink the water in Higgins Lake, but on weekends in the woods up North, no one worried much about a little dirt. Dirt was okay, man. 

Near the end of his tenure with Cliff, DL volunteered his services redecorating the Rat Hole Bar, our local saloon. The barn wood craze was just getting started. It was a way of bringing nature right into your living room. He nailed a lot of it to the walls in the bar. Also, in a stroke of genius, he repurposed worn out hog-feeding troughs (Cliff also raised hogs), cleaning them up and hanging them, at elbow level, on the walls adjacent to the bar. 

Cleaned them up. 

Dishwashers, I think, were not yet in widespread use in my hometown. Nor were power washers. The troughs did not smell.  I’m pretty sure they had not been sterilized. If you thought about it, the hog trough idea seemed both clever and disgusting. Nobody thought about it.

“Don’t get me wrong,” my daughter says. “The rack is cool. But instead of putting the dishes away, why don’t you just load them into the dishwasher?” 

“I guess I could.”  But what about the Zen? Somehow I can’t square the dishwasher with my Zen. 

“It’s what you do at your house,” she says.


She’s right. The vigorous rinse. And I’ve been told not to do that, not to wash the dishes before they go in the dishwasher. And I have read that you shouldn’t rinse your dishes at all before they go in the dishwasher. Those food particles remaining on bowls and plates mix with dish detergent and water and become a powerful cleaning agent. A whirling slurry of garbage gets your dishes clean. Even scuds the dried egg yolk off the two-year-old’s plate.   

One night, a few days after they’ve gone back to China, still at our daughter’s house, I’m stepping into the shower.  My wife tells me where the shower soap is.

I tell I don’t need soap.

“You don’t use soap?”

“I do not.”

“Not ever?

“Somewhere between rarely and never.” 

“And you don’t feel dirty?

I tell her I get clean. Clean as an American Indian standing in a stream in the land of sky blue water.  Do you suppose they used soap? Did they keep a bar of Irish Spring or Dove in the teepee, lather up and rinse off down at the creek?”

“Soap is bad for you,” I say. 

She tells me I’m crazy.

We each have our zones of purity.



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