When laundry goes bad

Every family needs a balanced division of labor.

Each household has many tasks that must be done regularly, and it's only fair that spouses divvy them up, according to time and ability and personal preference. Once kids reach a certain age, many chores can be dumped on them, but it still should be equitable. That's the democratic ideal.

A pivotal moment in my marriage came early on, when my wife and I made the following pact: She would pay the bills and do the household paperwork, and I would do all the laundry.

This was an ideal division of labor, pegged to ability (she's a whiz at organization; I can't do math) as well as personal preference (she hates laundry). I quickly found that laundry was something I could accomplish while watching sports on TV. Like I said, it was ideal.

Things change, of course. Once we had babies, I started wondering if I was getting a raw deal. The amount of laundry quadrupled and I found myself trying to fold, oh, 700 of those little "onesies" every week.

But household paperwork got more complicated, too. Mortgages and escrow accounts and insurance premiums and stock options and credit card statements and other math-related stuff I don't even pretend to understand.

The laundry load got somewhat easier after our sons passed the diapers-and-urp stage of their development. When they hit their teens. (Kidding!)

As the boys got older, I required them to round up their own dirty clothes. I wasn't about to prowl their filthy rooms in search of crunchy socks and moldy towels. If they wanted their clothes washed, they had to bring them to the laundry room.

The flaw in that plan: They didn't care if their laundry got done. They'd happily wear the same pair of jeans day in and day out, until the pants could stand up on their own and they could just leap into them every morning. In fact, they'd think that was "cool."

It became an exercise in nagging. Eventually, the clothes would appear and I'd wash them, along with whatever crayons, loose change, gravel and live frogs happened to be in the pockets.

I was griping about this situation, and my wife asked why didn't the boys do their own laundry. I raised several objections, including a dramatic rendition of a washer overflowing with suds, right out of an episode of "I Love Lucy," but my wife persisted, and we gave the boys the bad news.

Mostly, it's worked out okay. I still nag them when it becomes abundantly clear that their clothes need washing. They, so far, have not filled the house with suds.

But I know they're cutting corners, which brings me to the Hideous Shirt.

Years ago, in preparation for an Ugly Hawaiian Shirt contest, I made a thrift-store purchase of a brown-green-and-gold psychedelic number I thought was a sure winner, but it didn't even place. Who knew how ugly those shirts could get? Whew.

My younger son rescued the Hideous Shirt from the trash, pronounced it "cool" and took it to his room. He never wears it, but it regularly shows up in the laundry.

I know how this happens. After the requisite nagging, he does a clean sweep, picking up all clothes, dirty or clean, and throwing them in the washer. I watch the never-worn Hideous Shirt cycle through the laundry, and I chew my lips over the inefficiency and waste.

At least the boys aren't trying to balance the checkbook. Imagine how hideous that would be.

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