The Dishwasher

Six months after we moved into our current flat, one of our mugs went missing. It was just a mug, but it was a good one, a Taylor and Ng 1983 Minimals mug from San Francisco (via a Canberra op shop), featuring a couple of stylized elephants in grey and black. I looked everywhere for that thing, and couldn’t find it, which seemed bizarre: it couldn’t have wandered off, and we never took it out of the house.

Months later, it turned up. In the dishwasher.

I should explain that we’d never actually used the dishwasher; it wasn’t that we were taking our time getting around to running a load. We’d inherited it from the previous owners, but the hose attachment broke when we were moving in and we never got around to fixing it. We just kept doing the dishes the same way we’d done for years, by hand.

We had visitors halfway through 2008, and one of them must have helpfully put the mug into the dishwasher for the next load.

The next load wasn’t for quite some time, but there eventually was one. Losing half an hour or more every evening to the sink got to us in the end. Also, we finally figured out what had been causing a rash I used to get on my fingers. I first got it in my 20s, when I was finishing my PhD, and for a long time I put it down to stress. A succession of GPs in Australia and Britain prescribed cortisone creams and E45 and the like, and got me wearing white cotton gloves. The eczema (official medical term for “bad rash”) would strip layers of skin off the index and middle finger and thumb of my right hand, right across my fingerprints; even when they weren’t bleeding, they looked raw. Shaking hands with people was an embarrassment. It came and went, but over time the flare-ups got worse and lasted longer; I started to change the way I handled things to avoid using those fingers. It’s amazing in hindsight, but when the doctors couldn’t diagnose it all I could do was adapt.

That as much as anything was what put an end to my cartooning. Even in the periods when my skin was healed up, my fingers weren’t the same; the nerves had become hypersensitive to pressure, so even holding a pen or pencil was uncomfortable. I could type with the very ends of my fingers, but drawing wasn’t fun.

A few months after William was born, the eczema came back again. Changing half a dozen nappies a day with raw fingertips is pretty unpleasant, but I just washed my hands a lot and got on with it.

It stuck around for a long time this time, though. Months and months. Two years. It was painful, sore-looking, and generally awful. Jane’s diagnosis was more compelling than the medics’: Hideous Skin Disease.

Finally, on her urging, I went back to the doctor. Dr Google.

The Web is a powerful tool for self-diagnosis, so powerful that it threatens hypochondria; my response to an early misdiagnosis was to swear off it for all medical matters. But that was in the ’90s, when the quality of information online was erratic. By the late ’00s, the Web had become the storehouse for pretty much All Facts, provided you could use Google effectively. By this point, after a decade of working directly with and on the Web, it was fair to say that I could; so back I went.

Fairly quickly, Dr Google had pinpointed one possible culprit: rubber washing-up gloves. Latex allergies can cause eczema. I ordered myself some nitrile gloves and did the washing up with those for several weeks. Nothing changed; if anything, the rash got worse.

That suggested another possible culprit: the chemical used to soften latex and nitrile in both kinds of gloves. So after further research, I ordered myself a pair of Glovelies, a pair of stiff, completely unsoftened gloves more suited to the garden than the kitchen sink. They made doing the washing up feel like handling nuclear waste through a ten-inch-thick window.

But they worked. In only a few days, my fingers started to recover. In a few weeks, the skin was all better. A couple of years later, the pressure sensitivity even seems to have gone; the nerves have repaired themselves, I guess. The skin doesn’t feel exactly as it used to, but at least I have fingerprints again, and the rash has never returned.

Nothing to do, then, with the stress of a PhD, or a new job, or getting married, or moving house, or moving to another country, or being out of work, or becoming a new father, or any of the dozens of stressful reasons I’d imagined over the years. Just an allergic reaction to a commonplace industrial chemical.

I haven’t used the unlovely Glovelies for a long time now. A few weeks was enough. Jane bought a new hose for the dishwasher, and ever since then we’ve used that.

It was a pretty crappy dishwasher, though. The previous owners got a major-hardware-retailer kitchen installed, and it’s been gradually revealing its shortcomings and shortcuts to us. All the appliances were Indesit brand, a name which appears to be missing an n. The dishwasher never really washed stuff well, and in recent months it’s decided not to wash them at all, but instead to decorate them with droplets of water carefully placed so as not to dislodge any particles of food. I was having to do the washing up in the sink again, without gloves.

So on Saturday I ordered a new dishwasher, the first one I’ve ever bought (as opposed to inherited from a previous flat-owner, or used while living with my parents). It arrived this morning, at the end of its four-hour delivery window, just before I had to be elsewhere: the perfect time for the two blokes who carried it up the stairs to tell me they wouldn’t be able to install it after all, because the old dishwasher had an extension on the waste outlet and their insurance wouldn’t cover swapping that over. At least they carted the old one away.

So the new one sat in the middle of the kitchen all day, and I installed it this evening. Attaching the extension tube took about five minutes. Figuring out how to get the power cord through a tiny hole in the bottom of a cupboard took longer. My solution: enlarge the hole; but how, when I couldn’t get the proper angle on it with my hacksaw blade, and a jigsaw would be unsafe to use that close to a power outlet; um... Jane’s solution: the side of the cupboard is held on with four screws; undoing the bottom two lets you pull it out and slip the cord through the hole.

So the dishwasher is in. Before we could use it we had to figure out the water hardness in our area, and it was too late to call Scottish Water. Dr Google delivered again, turning up a brewers’ forum where someone had posted the answer, and a handy converter to turn milligrammes per litre of calcium carbonate into °Clarke, whatever those might be (grains per Imperial gallon, apparently, whatever “grains” might be). Edinburgh water is softer than a soft Andrex puppy, which is disconcerting when that means it’s acidic and you live in a Victorian tenement which probably still has lead pipes somewhere in the water supply. Still, it means we save on dishwasher salt.

We’ve given it a test-run. It cleaned everything beautifully, and is unnaturally quiet. If you hold your head up to it you can hear the gentle sound of rushing water, like the sea in a seashell. The old one sounded like going over Niagara in a barrel. On that basis alone, I would have replaced the old one years ago if I’d known. And if I’d known the truth about what kitchen gloves were doing to my fingers all those years, I would have dragged a dishwasher around with me by its extended waste outlet from flat to flat and city to city and halfway around the world.

20 February 2012 · Journal