My new sport's rule book is written on tiny tags

I have always been attracted to the orderly geometry of sports - the march of yard lines down the football field, the arc of the three-point line on the basketball court, the right angles of the baseball diamond. But I have found a surprising new order, not on the "field of dreams," but in my own "field of clean" - the laundry room.

My only previous connection between laundry and athletics was that annoying detergent commercial where the perky son peels off his grass-stained football jersey and hands it to his mother to place in a washing machine. (Why would any kid wear a snow-white jersey anyway?)

That was before my wife, Louise, and I completed a ceremonial "reallocation of household duties," a periodic and painful exercise that ends with two columns of responsibilities listed on a yellow legal pad.

In years past, the "his" list had been a little short on entries, and it had lightened further as my career kept me on the road. The "hers" column actually filled much more than one column.

But now, a new job meant that I would be home more - and generating a larger share of the day-to-day laundry. So "laundry 1x wk" went into my column. I thus faced the intimidating shelf of powders, liquids, and capsules. All struck me as vaguely toxic, and in our damp basement they smelled like a perfume factory in a rain forest.

Frankly, I was a little intimidated by the two antiseptic white boxes lodged in the cellar corner. The dials offered more options than an NFL playbook: soak, extra soak, hot/hot, cold/warm, cold/cold, spin dry. I was a rookie following the line-up in the "his" column.

Our house, with three teenagers, generates more than enough dirty clothes to fill 3-1/2 baskets during the week of my initiation. I reverse-dunked basket No. 1 into the mouth of the machine. Score! With authority built of total ignorance, I selected cold/warm (the Mama Bear setting seemed safest), extra large load (the bigger the better), and spun the dial for the longest - presumably the most luxuriating - spin I could give this baby.

I pitched in a cup of detergent, just as they do in the commercial, with an extra cup for good measure, and pulled out the start knob. It engaged with a satisfying torrent of water. As I disappeared up the stairs, I peeked back with a smile of male mastery.

Eighteen minutes later, I was back down in the basement swabbing the soapy overflow. I couldn't understand it - the commercial had never mentioned the risk of too much of a good thing.

And then, when I pulled Load No. 1 out of the machine, there was this little problem with my daughter's unmentionables. She didn't hesitate to mention that they were supposed to be white, not pale blue, Dad, and didn't I read the detergent box about separating the colors from the whites? Actually, no; I was upstairs in the kitchen reading about Michael Vick on the back of a cereal box.

Gradually, though, I got into the rhythm of this game and developed into a laundry pro. Reading the little washing-instruction labels became akin to scouring the box scores. I got to know the difference between terry, poly, and Lycra. (For the uninitiated, these are not women's names.) I could even understand the meaning of those hieroglyphic fabric-care symbols.

In a world where nothing seems to be black and white anymore, I'd found a playing field where eliminating gray was a lay-up. I began to get some satisfaction - OK, I admit it, lots of satisfaction - from doing this basic chore correctly. Over time, I added the nuances of using fabric softener, spot-prepping with stain remover, and, of course, advanced folding.

From lumpy piles, I graduated to crisp creases and neat stacks segregated by family member and type of clothing. I felt an orderly calm as I refilled the laundry baskets with clean stuff, making sure that the underwear never commingled with the Youth League uniforms.

After a few months of my increasing enthusiasm for laundry duties, my wife finally asked what was going on down there. She was a bit suspicious of my passion for household drudgery.

So I had to ask myself: What was the attraction? The answer is brighter than bright. Laundry has a full set of regulations, accessible and understandable to all - if you just read the rule book. You know exactly what's in and what's out of bounds, what works and what doesn't. And when the dryer beeps, time's up. Game over.

I was explaining all this to my 14-year-old son the other day as we loaded a pile of jeans into the washer. He let a white T-shirt slip in, but caught the minor-league mistake in time.

I'm not worried. With encouragement and proper coaching, he'll make it to the pros.

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