Saturday, January 28, 2012

#143 - Dishing It Out

Dishing It Out

1/28/12 (#143)

Why have dishes and silverware if you're not going to use them?

That was the inside joke at our house to justify a sink cluttered with dirty plates and bowls, coffee mugs stuffed with so much flatware they resembled metallic hedgehogs or some found-art installation. My wife and I both dislike washing dishes, so for years, we simply wouldn't do it until we had to. When one of us would inevitably be forced to stir coffee with a butter knife or contemplate eating cereal with a serving ladle, we would resign ourselves to the task and invest two or three hours into cleaning and returning every item to its respective shelf or drawer. It was a massive undertaking, but it only takes one serving of coffee from a Tupperware container to know that you've reached the end of your dishware tether.

While we were equally willing to build mock city skylines with piles of dishes of varying heights, I am better able to tolerate dismantling the towers — it satisfies my latent obsessive/compulsive tendencies, the dish rack becoming a blank canvas and filling every square inch an art form. An hour into excavating the porcelain midden we formerly used as our sink, the dish rack bowed under the weight of its contents, items propped and dangling with such precarious complexity that it called to mind the finale of a Cirque de Soleil show. At this point I would back away slowly and say to my wife in my best Nigel Tufnell, "Don't touch it. Don't even point at it."

When I was staying at my Mom's house this past summer, I noticed that she washed the dishes every night. Once the food-consumption portion of the evening was done (which for her meant "dinner", while in our house that means "post-prime-time chip raid") she would quickly and efficiently clean the kitchen before settling down to relax for the evening. As a result, every morning, the kitchen was spotless and inviting. Her favorite coffee mug was sitting next to the coffee maker, not buried under the rubble of a three-course meal. I know, it was a simple, deliberate routine that made this happen, yet every morning it seemed like magic.

Of course, applying this simple, deliberate routine to my own home was akin to telling a would-be dieter, "So you just eat healthier food and less of it." Yes, simple to describe — the challenge is in the execution. I have things I want to write, Words with Friends games to play, bad TV I need to watch then scoff at — there simply wasn't time for washing dishes every day. Anyone who would argue otherwise does not understand the depths of my laziness. (To help you put it in perspective, I watch reruns of Chopped. I know what dishes they're creating, I know who wins, and there is nothing to be gained from watching it. But it is so much easier to watch it than to get up and do something productive.)

By the beginning of Winter, an opportunity for changing my mindset finally arrived — my wife's birthday. I'm ashamed to admit this, but I'm not a great gift-giver. I fret over what to get her every year, wanting to give her something that's creative, thoughtful, useful, and not an item of clutter. Along with the creative gift (read: clutter) that my daughter and I made for her, I also made her a pledge: She would not have to wash dishes for an entire year. This might not be a fun gift to pull out of box, but if ever there was a gift that keeps on giving, this was it. Needless to say, she loved the idea of the gift, even if she was skeptical about delivery.

But I'm delivering. It required a complete lifestyle change, but knowing I have a few of my mom's genes in me, I knew it was possible. I abandoned my previous ignore-as-long-as-possible approach and made dish washing part of my daily ritual. The gift was intended to benefit my wife, but I've realized essential benefits for myself:

  • I'm smarter, which has nothing to do with dishes but everything to do with the audio books I listen to while I wash. It is so nice to have a warm voice whispering some writer's brilliant words into my ears, transporting me to some faraway place where no one is scrubbing meat residue from the bottom of a no-it's-not-non-stick pan.
  • I'm not dumber, which is how I often feel when I watch television. I'm not against TV as a media form, as there are many thought-provoking and informative shows available to the viewer. But in my case, I'm just as likely to watch Wipeout, the obstacle-course competition that celebrates contestants being bludgeoned by giant padded apparatuses. (Mindless? Yes. Fun? Also yes.)
  • There's magic in the house, just like there was at my Mom's house. Every morning, I step into the kitchen and revel in the cleanliness, knowing we won't need to move a pile of plates to find space for making our daughter's lunch. You might think this would eventually cease to be noteworthy, but 60 days in, it is a daily delight. And since I'm not the type to take the good things in my life for granted, I expect this will remain a delight.

It hasn't been a seamless transition — my hands are getting dry and cracked, and I'm struggling to find a dish glove that affords the dexterity I prefer when washing dishes. But the bottom line is this: My wife is happier, and isn't that the ultimate goal of a birthday gift?

You may be expecting a feel-good-movie ending to this essay, a thoughtful summarization of how the value I've found in this finite, focused task has expanded to other parts of my life. Nope. My office desk still resembles a paper-only time capsule, my workshop looks the before picture on a power tool safety poster, and the basement continues to look like an amateur audition for Hoarders.

But c'mon, my favorite coffee mug is always clean. How much magic can one house accommodate?

©2012 wpreagan

Monday, January 9, 2012

#142 - Men In Pink

Men In Pink

1/9/12 (#142)

I have gender issues. Not with being a man (I'm smart enough to I appreciate the good fortune my chromosomal composition has afforded me in America) but with the way our culture continues to define gender, and by reflex, the expectations of each gender. Specifically, what it is to be a "man".

For instance, I wear pink shirts. I like pink shirts. Not as much as blue or white shirts, but enough that I'm glad to have the option to add that color to the palette of my life. That shouldn't be worthy of note, any more than liking yellow shirts, yet at the office recently a woman said, "I like your shirt. It takes a confident man to wear a pink shirt."

Actually, it doesn't. If I could bottle self-doubt, I could make a fortune — though the product seems to be in plentiful supply, so I can't imagine who would buy it. What it takes to wear a pink shirt is fatigue with blue and white and plaid and whatever other shirts a man has in his closet. It's not just me — I work with other guys who wear pink shirts, and if you believe some people's prevailing wisdom, we're either a troupe of swaggering mavericks who boldly thumb our noses at conventional perceptions of manliness, or we're a bunch of dandies. In fact, I DO thumb my nose at the archaic yet common conventions of masculinity in our society — but it has nothing to do with a pink shirt. Because a pink shirt is just a shirt that happens to be pink. I'm not making a statement, I'm simply aware that with ivory-colored khakis and a brown suit jacket, a pink shirt looks quite nice.

I was recently in a Facebook "conversation" (my euphemism for the exchange of opposing viewpoints that follow many posts) about women who ask their men to get tampons or hair dye at the store, and one female commenter stated that any man who would buy these things "doesn't have a man card." This strikes me as a juvenile approach to both menstrual cycles and grocery shopping. I have no problem buying tampons — I know the brand and box my wife prefers, and I don't feel a need to disguise the product in a larger pile of groceries. That doesn't make me less of a man, nor more of a man - it makes me a shopper. If tampons are on the list, it would be ridiculous for me to tell my wife she needs to make a special trip to the store after I've returned with all of the other groceries because I am honor-bound by my Y chromosome to avoid the feminine hygiene aisle.

It was that exchange that enlightened me to a flaw in my thinking: Historically, I have blamed the ongoing delineation of gender roles on men. I thought feminism was working to make women genuine equals, and it was vestiges of the old-boy network that perpetuated the narrow idea of "manly" behavior. This bias was based on my personal observation that many men remain very much hung up on being "manly" - choosing a manly drink at the bar (because what kind of pussy would order a drink with grenadine in it?) or driving a manly car (which explains why VW is trying to define their new Beetle as manly) or refusing to wear a pink shirt. I find these attitudes misguided, but they're common, and I've come to begrudgingly accept it. My error was in thinking that I was taking the women's side on this, because I've been noticing lately that women are just as likely to have a skewed gender perspective.

I remember my wife (before she was my wife) pointing out a "starter" toolkit at one of the big box stores, made for someone who wanted to have basic tools in their home: hammer, pliers, screwdrivers, saw, wire cutters, and an assortment of nails and screws. What made this set noteworthy? Every handle was pink, and they were all encased in a box labeled "Her Toolkit." (In a flowing font that looked like it had been lifted from the front of a cheerleading outfit.) My wife laughed because she owned a black-handled, non-gender-specific hammer, because she never perceived a hammer as an outlet to express her femininity - she simply wanted something that could drive a nail into the drywall. The idea of someone marketing a pink-handled hammer to her was absurd. Of course, she only felt that way because it was absurd.

Another example: a woman called my friend's hardware store and asked to talk with a deck specialist. They sent the call to the resident desk specialist, an experienced woman with a deep knowledge of materials, construction, and local zoning ordinances. The caller asked again to speak with a desk specialist. "That's me," the salesperson insisted, "how can I help?" In short order, it became clear that the caller didn't want to speak to the smartest desk specialist in the store - she wanted to speak to a male deck specialist. Because men really know that kind of stuff, you know? Satisfying the caller meant transferring the line to a less-qualified male employee. Fortunately, they had such a person on staff.

I know that I'm not exposing some seedy, secret underbelly of American culture. This is par-for-the-course even in the 21st century, and that's exactly why I'm speaking of it. These attitudes get reinforced every day, and too many people seem to shrug it off as "just the way things are." We can blame marketers who create ad campaigns like Dr. Pepper 10's inane "It's not for women" or beer ads that contribute catchphrases like "man card" to the cultural dialogue; we can blame Hollywood for perpetuating gender stereotypes under the guise of "that's what audiences respond to"; we can blame anyone and everyone, but there comes a time when we have to accept some responsibility ourselves. Yes, it's the way things are, but it's not the way things ought to be.

With all the negativity that life can throw at us - job insecurity, health scares, resource depletion, domestic violence, terrorism, poverty, natural disasters, insert your personal demons here - does it really matter what color shirt a man wears or who's buying the tampons? Gentlemen, if you like vodka on the rocks, by all means, drink up - but don't choke it down because your preferred Tequila Sunrise makes you "look" like a pansy; and ladies, recognize that a man who faithfully adheres to the testosterone playbook may only be showing his studiousness, not his strength. Rather than worrying about who's wearing the proverbial pants, how about we all put on whatever we want to wear and get to work addressing the things that really matter.

©2012 wpreagan