You probably remember the news President Trump made a few days ago – he’s taking hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that he’s championed as a covid-19 countermeasure but that doctors warn may cause heart problems.
What caught my attention was his take on another subject: washing the dishes. That common household activity doesn’t seem to rank high on the president’s list of urgent pursuits. Neither is walking the dog.
The opposite is true for me. Doing the dishes and walking the dog have been highlights of my days and evenings during the coronavirus crisis, and both are helping me survive the pandemic’s constant uncertainty and occasional terror.
The subjects came up during a White House “roundtable” that the president had with restaurant executives. At the end, reporters had a chance to quiz the president, but as usual, they veered off-topic.
One wanted to know why Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general, who was said to be looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directed a staffer to perform personal chores, such as collecting dry cleaning, arranging dining reservations and walking the family dog.
“Look, he’s a high-quality person – Mike,” Trump said of Pompeo. “He’s a very high quality – he’s a very brilliant guy. And now I have you telling me about dog walking, washing dishes.”
For the record, dishwashing doesn’t seem to have been among the areas the inspector general was probing. Nonetheless, the president pressed the matter in defending Pompeo:
“And you know what?” Trump said, “I’d rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes, because maybe his wife isn’t there or his kids aren’t there.”
Let’s skip the treacherous territory Trump had wandered into – the implication that dishwashing is women’s work. What floored me was the low rank the president assigned to dishwashing, namely that a secretary of state has better things to do than the dishes.
“You know how stupid that sounds to the world?” Trump asked, suggesting that Pompeo’s official duties, like negotiating nuclear weapons with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or going nose-to-nose with China’s President Xi Jinping about the origins of the pandemic take precedence over getting his hands wet at the kitchen sink.
I don’t want to be speaking for Pompeo, but it seems to me a little unfair of the president to suggest that his secretary of state – whom he’d just praised as being first in his class at West Point – can’t do both: clean up the supper dishes and orchestrate world peace.
Granted, Pompeo’s achievements and responsibilities far outpace my own. I was nowhere near the top of my class in a college no one’s heard of; and my main duties these days are focused on staying alive: avoiding face-to-face confrontations with the novel coronavirus; trying to remember to carry my facemask and sometimes wearing it; calculating whether someone is 5.67 or 6.09 feet ahead of or behind me; hoping that my wife and I can outwit the virus long enough for some brilliant scientific team to create a vaccine so that we can leave the house.
In the meantime, there’s immense satisfaction in washing the dishes. And I wonder whether Pompeo also might benefit from that kind of after-supper rendezvous.
Washing the dishes is among the few things we can do where success is guaranteed, in contrast to the challenges that confront Pompeo, whose assignments that are truly Sisyphean and doomed to end in disappointment.
Secretaries of state are supposed to get other countries – some of them notoriously unpredictable and often murderous – to stop doing something our country doesn’t want them to do. Or they are supposed to persuade other countries to do what we want them to do but which they don’t. It’s frustrating.
The opposite is true with the dishes.
How much more inviting, after every meal, to confront a pile of filthy dishes, grungy forks and knives, slimy bowls, coffee-stained mugs next to the kitchen sink. And then to plunge each piece into water frothy with detergent, big plates first, then sending them along to superhot rinsing sink. And finally arranging these shimmering, rejuvenated objects into orderly rows in the drying rack, balancing the stragglers ever higher in a precarious pyramid to avoid drying a few with a towel.
It’s an accomplishment that is both intense and repeatable. Evening after evening, you start out with a defiant, rebellious mess, and you end triumphantly, having restored harmony and order to your home.
Too much of what we face in these turbulent, uncertain times is out of our control, no matter whether we graduated first or last in our class; whether we are embarked on foreign adventures or remain locked into home confinement; or whether we have outfoxed the virus or we are about to become its victims.
But washing the dishes – well that’s something that’s entirely in our hands.
And as a reward for completing this simple task, when everything is wrapped up in the kitchen, we get to take dog for her walk.