We had a dozen solar panels installed on our roof, but you hardly notice them, except from the very end of the street. This pleases me. Every voting adult in a town like Portland, Ore., is in favor of solar panels, but conspicuous ones seem ostentatious, somehow.
We can track our panels’ performance on the computer, where a readout spins along in real time. Our solar generation arcs through the day in a soothing green, and our hydropower consumption from our public utility ripples alongside it in angry, flaming, dead-salmon red. It wasn’t long before we began to check it obsessively. “That’s when the oven was on,” we’d say, pointing to a blip over a background corrugation from the refrigerator. “And that ... ”
Holy moly. Every time we ran the clothes dryer a red spike shot clear up to the top of the graph and threatened to impale the browser bar. It was intolerable.
Not long ago we traded up to a high-efficiency washer and inquired about tax credits for the matching dryer. The salesman was rueful. “There’s no such thing as a ‘high-efficiency’ dryer,” he said. This is one of those things you know deep inside but manage to ignore until you take a red spike to the heart.
We didn’t have a clothes dryer when I was growing up. Every Thursday, Mom hung everything out on the line, straight from the wringer, with the bedsheets providing a cover of modesty for the underwear. She didn’t appear to mind the task, although she did get mightily irked at the birds, especially during mulberry season, when the tree next door had plenty of purple ammunition. She folded everything neatly and put it in a wicker basket.
I had chores, but laundry wasn’t one of them. So when I left home, it took me a while to realize that folded laundry didn’t appear in my drawers by magic. It took time, initiative, and quarters. I still miss the magic, and also the towels, which were wonderfully scratchy. At some point it became important to sell soft, fluffy towels, and now you can’t even get the scratchy ones.
The red spikes on the computer graph affected me the way digested mulberries affected my mother. So we attached cleats to the house and strung out a pair of lines over the back patio. I rummaged around in the basement and came up with my mom’s clothespin bag, full of now-antique wooden clothespins from my childhood. I discovered I actually enjoy hanging out laundry. It is as deeply satisfying as if I had invented photosynthesis. When winter came, during which my laundry could be expected to dry outside by sometime in June, I bought a wooden rack and hung everything up inside. The clothes dryer has joined the ranks of the unemployed. From time to time we pass by it as though it’s an artifact and wipe the lint off the top of it.
And I have nice, scratchy towels again. Just like a lot of good ideas, they were there all along.