Man Cleaning

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Laundry room debris field

I’ve done my share of cleaning house over 30+ years of marriage.  I stayed home with the kids when they were little and waged the losing battle of keeping their chaos at bay.  I once told a college class that managing a house occupied by two toddlers was like composing a term paper with a drunk roommate deleting key passages whenever the writer looked away for a split second.  All accomplishments are doomed to erasure.

Doing chores while surrounded by little barbarians gave me a fatalistic approach to house cleaning.  I got in the habit of taking care of the worst of the worst, nibbling at the bits I somewhat cared about, and letting major areas collect dust and debris.

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Dresser top of lost hope

Recently our circumstances have forced me to take on more of the chores than I ever did before.  The kids are grown and gone, so there should be less to do.  But now I’m starting to see things through my wife’s eyes and realize that the cobwebs growing from the ceiling in the back room really shouldn’t be allowed to hang down to eye level.  The strange odor in the laundry room behind the Christmas tree boxes no longer lingers, but its fossilized source really ought to be removed (dead lizard or corn snake?).  Ancient stains on the side of the fridge could be scrubbed off, as well as stratified layers of greasy fuzz on the kitchen ceiling fan.

I eventually come to the conclusion that I could start at one end of the house and scrub inch by inch.  Repainting and patching could follow.  New curtains could replace the moth eaten ones over the front window, and the coat closet could be excavated for usable tennis rackets, tennis balls, and vacuum cleaner attachments from amongst the debris at the bottom.  The job seems endless.

And now I begin to understand a major difference between the sexes.  Women tend to see housework as a manageable project that produces a cozy nest if the right effort is applied, if their housemate abstains from random acts of stinky sock/wet towel dropping.  Men see the interior of a house and shut down.

Housework induced catatonia in males is not always caused by laziness, but more often by willful blindness in the face of overwhelming odds.  The blindness has no evil intent, but is more a matter of self-preservation.  A man who has taken the time to do a thorough survey of his domestic environment is like an astronaut spacewalking and contemplating the stars.  He feels so small compared to a vast number of tasks spread over a mini-universe of domestic space.

When confronted by the infinite, it’s best for a man to pretend that the majority of it does not exist.  He pops a beer, sits in a recliner and waves to his friends, the spiders hanging all around him.  He might knock down their webs down in a day or two, but at that moment he just wants a little company.

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Entropic night stand

The Tell-Tale Patch

Have you noticed that men and women in long term relationships begin to lose their separate identities?  They transform into tandem units.  Below is a personal account of one such melding.

Over the Thanksgiving break I watched very little football, ate no red meat, and drank only a few beers…no whiskey…And I smoked no cigars.  When I cooked for myself I leaned toward vegetarian dishes, and I took time to meditate and do yoga.  I spent many contented hours sitting in a chair in my living room talking to my wife, Judy, and watching Downton Abbey reruns and a Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls.  At night before we went to bed we cuddled on the sofa and talked about how we first met, how sweet our children were when they were toddlers.  And I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

But I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Two nights ago I fell asleep around midnight.  I woke when my bedroom door creaked open but didn’t jump up and confront the intruder.  I could see my wife in the dim light.  She carried a flash light pointed toward the floor with a hand cupped over the lit end.  I had no idea what she was up to, but decided to let her carry out whatever mission she had in mind.  She slowly approached and pulled back my sheet when she stood beside me.  I wasn’t wearing a pajama top, so the cool night air made me shiver.  She must have seen movement: she froze in place for a long spell and then carefully spread her fingers to shine a narrow ray of light on my face.  I closed my eyes just in time before she discovered that I was awake.  The light eventually snapped off.

I felt her fingers on my back.  They were cold.  They pressed something sticky between my shoulder blades.  Judy had studied medicinal botany, and I wondered if she was applying a poultice to ease a cough that had lingered for weeks.

She dropped the sheet and turned away.  I watched her shadowy figure retreat to the door and heard her slippered feet shuffle down the hallway.  I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of rose gardens, newborn babies and a springtime trip to Paris.

Yesterday I woke up feeling refreshed.  I picked some flowers from the garden and made us chocolate chip scones and herbal tea for breakfast.  I lit a scented candle mid morning and chanted a mantra, and then Judy and I recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems to one another.  Everything was lovely, truly lovely, and I regretted that I had to go out to a nasty hardware store to buy an extension cord.

I decided to shower before I went.  I usually don’t bother but have recently found that when I give my appearance more attention I feel better about myself.  My eyebrows were a mess and needed a good plucking, and I just had to pull some white hairs that sprung up on my temples over night.  It was one o’clock before I stepped into the shower.  In a hurry I didn’t bother to investigate when I felt something hit the back of my left calf.  After I stepped out and dried myself off with a plush towel I had just bought at B, B and B (love that store!)  I took a few minutes to pick out my ensemble.  I didn’t go back in the bathroom to wipe down the shower.  I decided instead to give it a thorough scrubbing after I came home and rearranged the china in the kitchen cupboards.

I got distracted by a Julia Roberts movie marathon that afternoon, and it wasn’t until 8 o’clock yesterday evening that I ventured back into the bathroom to clean the shower.  When I did I saw a little patch lying on a nest of hair over the drain.  I picked it up and inspected it carefully.  It wasn’t one of Judy’s home made poultices.  The print was small and difficult to read, but I understood from the logo (ESTROGENIE) that it was an estrogen replacement patch.  Had Judy stuck this on my back the night before?

She was out in the living room watching a ballet.  I recognized the overture to Swan Lake and felt a strong urge to join her.  But I sneaked into her bedroom and searched her bureau.  I found a box of patches in an upper drawer.  It held a count of 50, and about a quarter of them were gone.

Judy has never taken hormone replacement therapy.  One of her menopausal girlfriends must have passed them along.

When I came out into the living room I didn’t confront Judy.  I didn’t know for sure whether or not she had been dosing me with estrogen, and I wasn’t in the mood to start a silly fight.  Instead I asked her if she’d like a blueberry muffin.  I had baked a dozen after supper.  I made us a pot of chamomile tea, and after we snacked we cuddled on the sofa and let Tchaikovsky carry us away on golden clouds of music.  We said goodnight when the last strains faded away and went to our separate bedrooms.  I waited in the dark.

At midnight I heard the door creak.  A shadowy figure crept into my room.  She lifted the sheet and touched my back with cold fingers.  She pressed one then two sticky patches between my shoulder blades and retreated.  I thought about pulling them off but suddenly felt too content and comfortable to bother.  I dreamed of butterflies and puppies and women wearing long, brocaded gowns.  They had decorative combs in their hair, and I admired the intricate weave of their ebony locks.

This morning I planted rose bushes in front of the house, vacuumed and took a shower.  I felt the patches fall off my back, but I managed to dry them off and stick them back on.  After I dressed I got out my watercolors.  I began to design a sweater that I had been thinking about knitting every time I’ve wandered into Jo Ann’s Fabrics the last few days.

The colors should compliment my complexion, but I hope that the pattern won’t be too bold and flashy…I like to make an impression when I walk into a room, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying too hard.

Gender Roles

I met many women in my grandmother’s generation who never remarried after losing their husbands.  When asked whether they’d ever consider a second husband they would dismiss the possibility out of hand by saying, “Why would I want to pick up after another man?  Once was enough.”  They viewed their role in a traditional marriage as one of servitude.  Some considered men as nothing more than a necessary evil.

Unattached women in my mother’s generation had a different complaint.  The men whom  they dated didn’t take them all that seriously, still thought of them as sexual playthings who occasionally had something worthwhile to say.  And while married men did do some chores around the house, they still expected their mates to do the majority of the cooking and cleaning.

I’ve never gotten a clear view about what the women in my generation expect from men because my life has gone against the grain.  My wife earned a PhD in biology, and I an M.F.A. in painting.  I always worked part and full time jobs to contribute to the household income, but we both knew from the start that she had a much better chance of earning enough to support a family.  I stayed home with our two children when they were little and worked part time as an art instructor.  I did the majority of the weekly cooking and cleaning as well as some of the yard work.  I changed and washed diapers endlessly, gave bottles, played games with the kids and read them books.

My wife and I fought from time to time about the division of labor when the kids were young.  She didn’t always realize how difficult it was to get anything done with a baby in hand and a toddler tugging at my pants leg.  And I didn’t fully understand how exhausted she was when she came home from work.  But for the most part we appreciated what each contributed to keeping our family’s ship afloat.  And we took on roles that suited our talents and didn’t worry about traditional preconceptions about what men and women ought to do.

Sometimes we encountered odd reactions from strangers when they discovered our arrangement.  Men often seemed aghast and somewhat afraid that my condition was catching.  A few women expressed their doubt that men were competent to take care of children.  On a couple occasions when I was dealing with a kid’s public tantrum an old lady sidled up to me with a mean glint in her eyes and asked, “How’s the babysitting going?”  I had an answer ready: I told them that I was my children’s father and therefore wasn’t a babysitter.  That response always shut them up and made them go away.

My daughter’s expectations about gender roles may have been confused by the way my wife and I mixed and shared our duties.  She was given odd looks in grade school once when she explained that “Daddies stay home and mommies go to work.”  When she became a young adult I asked her what she was looking for in a man.  She said that she’d liked to find a guy who would cook and clean while she went to work.  She has since realized that such men are rare and has revised her expectations.

I still get occasional flak from women in my generation who assume that I’m just another one of those bastards who exploit their wives.  It takes time for them to adjust their opinion of me after they find out what I’ve done to raise children, to offer care giving and to support my wife’s career.  They can’t quite fit me into their preconceptions about men, and sometimes revert to their original hostility.  I’m guilty until proven innocent many, many times.

I understand that women have built up millenniums worth of resentment toward male oppression, that men have earned their scorn and still add to the shameful record of abuse.  But I’m not willing to apologize for my existence as a man.  I can’t undo the damage that some men have done, and I’m not volunteering to be made a scapegoat.  I think that in the rush to respond to male misbehavior some women forget that neither gender, as a whole, is a consistent example of shiny virtue.

I often hear women complain that men are morons who just let their dicks lead them around, that they’re babies who want their wives to be their mothers, that they’re emotionally stunted and uncommunicative.  Men complain that women are changeable, irrational and overly emotional.  And they report that their wives and girlfriends expect them to be mind readers and get angry with them when they don’t meet unstated expectations.  When women are called out on this trait they often reply, “But you would have known that (done that) if you really loved me.”

My take on this is that anatomy and hormones drive both sexes’ behavior to a certain extent.  Acculturation is another obvious factor.  Members of both genders have to make an effort to overcome hard wired behavior patterns when they lead to affliction.

In the end it’s difficult for every person to make his or her way through life regardless of gender.  Everybody has to pay many tolls as they journey from birth to death.  Maybe that shared struggle, that common denominator, could be the starting point for a rapprochement between men and women.  We are all, by definition, human.