Up next: a White House clothesline?

April 13, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, are trapped in role model hell, what with her off-the-rack dresses, his new international humility, their intact African-American family, the rescue dog search and, of course, the vegetable garden.

And now Alex Lee would like them to add a clothesline.

The founder of Project Laundry List, an effort to get Americans to give up their clothes dryers and the energy it takes to run them, hopes the Obamas will hang out their laundry - not dirty, just like household linens - along with the rest of the country next Sunday on National Hanging Out Day.

"A picture of Sasha and Malia playing among the sheets blowing in the wind would touch the hearts of all Americans who have their own memories of wash hanging on the line," said Lee, of Concord, N.H.

"Even if they put their clothesline behind a fence, it would send a signal to other institutions that laundry can be done like this - restaurants, hospitals, hotels, universities."

Lee is hoping that an Obama clothesline would have the same impact on the country's consciousness as the Obama vegetable garden. Homeowners - and city officials - are planting vegetable gardens like mad this spring in places you never thought you'd see vegetables grow.

But hanging out the wash - as charming as it might be to see the Obama children frolic in the billowing sheets - carries a lot more social baggage than a victory garden does.

There are jurisdictions where hanging out laundry is not permitted at all, probably because it has a low-class reputation. And there is the objection to seeing our neighbor's undergarments on the line - if she doesn't happen to wear Victoria's Secret.

"Ten states are working on right-to-dry legislation," Lee said. "Colorado passed it, and the governor signed it. Maryland had two competing bills, and both failed."

And there are racial overtones to the suggestion that the African-American first lady hang out the wash from "The Big House," as it were. Lee has heard critics call it a demeaning reference to slavery.

"The Obamas of all people would sort of say, 'Hey, if this is the right thing to do, who cares what other people are thinking,' " said Lee. "Unfortunately, I think there are people around them that will not let this issue get in front of them."

Lee began Project Laundry List in 1995 while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont upon hearing environmentalist Dr. Helen Caldicott say, "If we all did things like hang out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear industry."

He has moved beyond homeowners and is trying to persuade major institutions to air-dry their laundry. When he made such a proposal to a prison in Concord, officials objected, saying the inmates would hang themselves or use the ropes to rappel down prison walls and escape.

"My response was, 'What did prisons do 100 years ago?' "

When my own children were babies, I hung their cloth diapers on a clothesline, where the sun killed the ammonia and bleached out the stains. I hung out their bedclothes because they smelled so sweet as a result, and their little toddler clothing because dryers shorten the life expectancy of any garment they heat.

When my dear mother-in-law began to weep at the sight of me hanging out the wash, I thought I had offended her religious beliefs because it was a Sunday.

No. She was crying, she said, because she had hoped her children would never have to work as hard as she had.

"What she didn't understand," Lee says, "is how hard you were working to earn the money to pay for the dryer and for the utility bills.

"Since 1945, we've bought into the Ronald Reagan-General Electric pitch that white goods [washers, dryers and refrigerators] will liberate us from the drudgery of housework," Lee said.

"All these years later, we work longer hours and take less vacation than the rest of the world."

Lee attempted to reach the first lady's press office to talk about participating in National Hanging Out Day on April 19. There was no response.

He has asked New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes, a friend of the Obamas', about hand-delivering a message to them. He is hopeful, but not optimistic, that the first family will join this movement.

"People are spending about $120 to $150 a year running dryers. And that's pretty conservative," he said.

The clothes dryer is the second-highest energy consuming appliance, behind the refrigerator, representing about 10 percent of household energy use. The average household dries about 7.5 loads a week. What if each of us reduced that by just one load a week? Lee asks.

"We are an obese society. We are out of touch with the outdoors. We never talk to our neighbors over the fence anymore," Lee said.

Hanging out one load of wash a week would change much of that.

And the bedsheets would smell wonderful.

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