Recently I was fingerprinted for a work ID. Sitting at a little table across from a gentleman who, like many federal employees, wore his ID badge and metro card around his neck, I concentrated on rolling my right thumb just so over the scanner between us, from the leftmost edge of the nail to the flat, fleshy center before lifting straight up. Then I did it again. And again. And again.

Following his instructions, I pressed my thumb to my forehead, to pick up a dab of perspiration to help the machine take notice of those hard-to-read folds that comprise my unique skin pattern. Still the machine didn’t respond. It was like one of those electronic soap dispensers that refuse to notice me standing there, with my hand out, waiting. Or perhaps my fingerprints were the problem. Had they worn off? Was that even possible?

As I continued gently rolling my fingertips over the scanner, I thought of my wife, Cynthia, our three kids, and our kitchen sink. There was the source of my identity crisis, I thought. If the scanner couldn’t pick up my fingerprints, it was because I had finally washed too many dishes.

I happen to be a member of that distinct minority who like to wash dishes. Time allowing, I am also a member of the minority within a minority who like to dry and put away dishes once they have been washed. There are, however, limits.

As a part-time clerk at a delicatessen during my teenage years, I grew very tired of the sight of the deep metal double sink. Its brackish water always concealed animal guts—we sold a lot of rotisserie chickens—long sharp knives, and odd pieces of equipment, like the bullhorn spikes that screwed onto the rotisserie spits to hold the chickens in place.

But give me a nice little home kitchen and a large pile of food-encrusted china, and I am at peace. My nervous energy is efficiently expended while my mind wanders free. As on long drives, I seem to have a lot of amusing thoughts (amusing to me, anyway) when my body is busy and I am not trying to be witty. Also, washing dishes gets me out of a lot of other work.

Cynthia wanted to be the family cook. Like many women of her generation, she returned to the kitchen to redress one of feminism’s side effects: neglect of the culinary arts. She wouldn’t put it that way, quite. But there is the fact that Cynthia, an education researcher with an advanced degree, owns about as many books on the arts of pickling and breadmaking as on statistical modeling. I do like having a wife who can explain standard deviations and make cucumbers taste tangy, but there is a price to all this self-improvement.

We have never achieved a perfect modus vivendi about who does the dishes. I don’t mind doing most of the dishes, including all of the evening dishes, but I find myself doing two shifts a day: when I get home and before I leave for work. And it’s getting to me.

The kinds of dishes I have to do make it all the more depressing: countless water bottles whose bottoms can only be reached with a sponge on a stick, lunchboxes whose insides are smeared with applesauce. Even pickle jars with their genteel remains of coriander seed and garlic cloves get on my nerves after minutes lost searching for the right top for my son’s metal thermos.

I repeat, I do love the sight of a clean kitchen, but even that is short-lived in our house. No sooner is a counter cleaned than homework papers or a new cooking project blights its surface.

I am starting to sound like one of the women Betty Friedan quoted in The Feminine Mystique who complain about mysterious pains in their hands and the woebegone feeling that there must be more to life than housework. But I make a lousy feminist.

A few months after our first child was born, while my sleep-deprived wife was still nursing and doing the lion’s share of parenting, her parents and sisters visited. My wife and our baby, suffice it to say, were the object of everyone’s concern. Everyone normal that is.

But as our guests enjoyed a cup of coffee or something to eat, and dirty dishes began to pile up on the counter next to a six pack of used baby bottles with their several parts, my concern was for the poor sap who had to clean up. Duty called, however, so I went to the sink and turned on the faucet, apparently saying out loud, “Sometimes I feel like all I do is dishes.”

“Yes,” Cynthia replied, “but washing dishes is all you do.”

Next Page