Saturday, March 28, 2009

Washing Up and Turning Off

Another one of those glorious coincidences that ignite one of my various passions and bring on a rant showed up in this morning's Dallas Morning News. This is yet another good reason to keep engaging in the rapidly declining ritual (in most households, although not in ours) of reading the morning paper. I doubt if this would have happened were I reading the News online, with its annoying ads and its frenetically arranged page design. (And when I went to look for a link to the story, I couldn't even find it; this link is to the same article, by AP's Nicholas Geranios, in the Guardian.)

On page 7A (in the main section of the paper in what passes for a sort-of science-related issues area, under "Environment") I ran into a short piece on domestic smuggling. Of dishwasher detergent. Apparently, although phosphates in laundry detergents have been banned nationwide for over a decade, a ban on the use of phosphates in dishwasher detergents is only now being implemented in some states, including Washington, beginning with Spokane County. Cranky users of mechanical dishwashing devices, unhappy with the results of the newly-formulated detergents, have taken to slipping over the Idaho border--where phosphate-laden suds are still legal--and running them back to Spokane.

It's probably a good thing that Canada's been working on a similar ban, or maybe we'd be looking at a new international border incident involving phosphate-smuggling cartels.

The people doing this are absolutely shameless: "Yes, I am a smuggler," one woman asserts. "I'm taking my chances because dirty dishes I cannot live with." The article goes on to point out that possession isn't the crime; selling it would be. So if she plans to hold a car-boot sale after a run to Costco in Coeur d'Alene, she could be lookin' at fifteen to twenty. Or whatever the penalty is.

It's actually not all that funny. There are good reasons why laundry detergent phosphates were banned back in 1993 (Blue Green Algae being the most compelling; it can really muck up lakes and ponds, and unless you're planning on bringing new life forms into existence, we don't really need a lot of it growing in our water sources). What folks don't seem to have noticed is that since then, the home laundry industry has developed spiffy new machines that use much less energy and much less detergent, and the chemical people have answered with high-efficiency detergents that do a great job using a few tablespoonfuls of liquid. They've probably made a gazillion bucks doing it. I'm sure the dishwasher-makers are already hard at it, inventing new models, with dollar signs in their eyes.

At any rate, since the invention of dishwashers that can clean and process all the leftover carnage on your dinner plates if you're too lazy to rinse before you load, people have come to expect squeaky clean tableware even if they've left everything to rot for a couple of days before they turn it on. (And yes, I know about the arguments that dishwashers use less water, and that rinsing negates water savings, but I don't believe either of those claims because nobody's shown me any really good pie charts yet.)

If I seem snitty (even for me), it's because have never liked dishwashers. One came with my first house, and I did live in an apartment with one once, but for a middle-class person who's been around during most of the post-WWII era, that makes me downright odd. We didn't have one in Chicago. The house we lived in for several years in Dallas had a portable one, which we moved into the garage. This house doesn't have one, and unlike many buyers of old houses in this neighborhood, we didn't demand that one be installed before we'd buy (the absence of a dishwasher was actually a selling point in our case; there are two old-fashioned flour bins where most people would put a machine). We do occasionally get oppressed by dirty dishes when we're too tired to take care of the issue after a long hard day at the blackboard, but one of us usually digs in the next morning and gets the job done.

So after reading about people's detergent gripes (to which my initial response was to suggest that they throw the damned thing out and make room for a worm farm), I was pleased to turn a few pages and read Robert Kelly-Goss's nice little Viewpoints piece, "A Simple Ode to the Blessings of Simplicity," which turned out to be a paean to washing one's dishes by hand:

Standing before my old sink, full of hot, soapy water and dirty dishes, I turned to the right and slid in one of my favorite CDs. It's by a blues artist from around Memphis, Richard Johnson.

He goes on to describe the rest of his family's activities as he engages in his chore, and to extol the virtues of enjoying simple things.

I am not so young that I do not remember when things such as technology were simpler. And I am not so old that I have not embraced the rapid changes that portend to make life simpler.

He misses some of the same things I do--rotary telephones, electric typewriters (although I miss my old manual Olivetti portable), and, like me, seems to have achieved a balance that enables him to take advantage of e-mail and CD players, but eschew stuff that just doesn't seem all that useful. Unlike him, I don't much care for soundtracks when I'm working; I'd rather look out the window and watch the birds on the feeder, or the dogs frolicking away in the yard. I will however, admit that NASA TV is presently running in the background as I type; I'm keeping track of the re-entry and descent of STS-119 as it comes home to Florida.

Some of my best memories involve washing up after a meal at my grandmother's house, or after a gathering of friends in Chicago, and enjoying the kind of communion among loved ones that can happen only when working together on tasks that might otherwise be disagreeable. That sort of thing can happen, I suppose, with a dishwasher, but I suspect that the dishwashing scene in Rachel Getting Married is probably more common--especially since writer Jenny Lumet based the scene on one she had witnessed as a child between her father, Sidney Lumet, and choreographer Bob Fosse.

In a few minutes, after I've posted this ramble and graded a few more final exams, I'll go wash this morning's few dishes and utensils so that I can start with a clean kitchen when I prepare a welcome-home dinner for Beloved Spouse who's been coaching the Men's team down in San Antonio since yesterday morning. He'll notice that the dishes are done, as we always do when someone else has taken on the job. Somehow I don't think that would happen if a dishwasher were involved. (Oh, gee, Honey. Thanks for pushing the button that turns the machine on!)

And now I'm going to devote the next few minutes to watching Discovery land at the Kennedy Space Center. I think washing dishes by hand helps balance all that technology, too.

Speaking of technology, don't forget to turn off as many lights as possible tonight at 8:30 local time, for Earth Hour. I doubt if anything significant will change in my neck of the woods, but if the giant vapor light in the alley goes off for an hour I will be happier than I've been since it burnt out a couple of years ago and didn't get replaced for several weeks. One of the biggest pollutants human beings have managed to create is the artificial light that makes it virtually impossible for us to see stars and planets in urban and suburban areas. Earth Hour is designed to give us an idea of what we've lost, by giving a little of it back for a few minutes once a year. I just wish the movement would inspire more cities to do what McKinney's neighbor, Fairview, has done, and adopt a Dark Skies initiative "to limit glare, reduce unnecessary light, and control other light pollution."

If somebody would just get rid of all the huge, visually "noisy" street lamps in this town, I might even get to see the Space Shuttle or the ISS fly by once in awhile--like I got to see satellites over my home town when I was kid. Before dishwashers were even invented.

Photo credits: The opening shot is of my kitchen sink; the rich lady up the street lusts after it because it would fit perfectly in the big Queen Anne she's painstakingly restoring--probably as a museum. The Blue Green Algae shot, Efflorescence Vert, is by Lamiot via Wikimedia Commons. The Earth Hour poster is one of the organization's downloads.


Martha Z said...

Now you have given me a challange. I have no diswasher at the cabin and of course while camping as we have been doing for the last week I wash up using as little water as possible. But at home I have grown used to the dishwasher, lulled perhaps by those suggestions that it uses less water.

Geoff said...

That link you posted to the Canada story is two years old. Health Canada has slowly been reducing phosphates since then and hopefully we'll see the end of them in 2010. The current enemy is bowel cleansing agents (heh! I almost typed enema!)

Earth Hour is a stunt I'm on the fence about. Ideally, turning off lights and lighting candles doesn't make much sense to save the environment, but I've already got into a debate with a friend on the issue. He has a point but I argued he was missing the big picture. History is filled with stupid stunts to get people to change their ways.

Owlfarmer said...

Martha: Glad you came by the Farm. I envy you your cabin, though. I had one in the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma for awhile, and I miss it. I guess it was all the camping I did in my otherwise miss-spent youth that created my antipathy for dishwashers, as well as living in countries where they didn't exist. But if one fills a tub with hot sudsy water, washes the dishes, dumps the tub, and rinses them in another tub of hot water, depending on the size of the family, there can be substantial water savings. Plus it's kind of nice.

Geoff: The 2007 date is what tipped you off, wasn't it? I used that particular article to show that Canadians have been at it for awhile (I could have used a more recent one from Manitoba, but this was more general and gave some good reasons).

Y'know--some things about my family's former country I'd rather not know about. Like a lurking affinity for bowel-cleansing agents. On the Serenity forum they'd make merciless fun of this, so I'm not going to mention it.

Earth hour is just a means of calling attention to the absence of night sky in highly-technologized countries like ours. I'd give almost anything to be able to see stars other than the usual suspects. I miss the Milky Way something fierce. We didn't light candles or anything (and didn't really turn off the TV--although we did pull the curtains), but went outside to see if anybody else did. Of course not.

I'll bet Martha can see stars at her cabin!

Geoff said...

My reading of Earth Hour is that of a mass demonstration, rather than another dark skies initiative. Turning off lights is just a simpler thing to do than not driving to work and probably more practical as a show of political will. It makes numbers in the next morning's paper and that's the value of it.

Yeah, I miss the milky way too. I wish my sister had not sold her cottage in Quebec.

Owlfarmer said...

I didn't expect much, this being Texas and all, but the local news made kind of a big thing about turning off the skyline. They organized skywatching parties and some astronomy buffs had telescopes out on hotel roofs and such, but I don't imagine anyone could really see anything. My daughter, who lives down in the thick of things, was out walking her dog at the time and didn't notice anything unusual. Maybe she just wasn't looking at the skyline--just being mindful of dog poop.

Martha Z said...

In 1994 we were living in the San Fernado valley at the time of the Northridge earthquake. All the lights went out and all the people came out. Most of the children and many of the adults said they had never seen such stars before. Yes we do see them at the cabin. Two more months and the road will be plowed, I can hardly wait.

Girl Tornado said...

Kudos for a wonderful post. I'm with you on washing dishes by hand. By sheer coincidence or fate, I've never had one in any house I've lived in, nor have I ever wanted one. Washing dishes is downtime for me, and I love to stare out the kitchen window. Staring out the window is better than it could ever be, now that I live in the countryside. Often, some pheasant or other wild game greets my eyes.

And I will say, you can see the stars forever out here. I don't know if I could ever live in the city again! :)

P.S. I love your kitchen sink! ;)

Owlfarmer said...

I do envy you your view. My kitchen window looks out on my neighbor's yard, and her Tudor-style house which actually looks a bit like Kelmscott Manor, the home William Morris loved and wrote about in News From Nowhere. But a little peach tree is growing up, and volunteer photinia, sheltering my view. When I add a bird feeder and clean out the iris bed, I won't see pheasants, but probably birds and butterflies--about the best I can do in the fringes of suburbia.

Cath said...

We're obviously behind downunder re use of phosphates as you have to check out the brand as to whether they use them or not. No wonder we suffer from blue green algae in our lakes and waterways (what's left of them)

Spent the weekend away from city lights and had a wonderful view of the Milky Way. It was incredible.