Thursday, February 28, 2013

Laundry Court

Let’s say you want your domestic partner to do the laundry and she won’t. Or, more credibly, he won’t. You cajole. You hide socks and favorite t-shirts. There was that unfortunate bleach spill. And the time no laundry got done (except yours, on the sly) for weeks. Nothing worked. Now what? Give up and go back to doing it yourself?

I hate to say this, but I was a chauvinist pig. I may still be--what man can ever be trusted to evaluate his own porkiness?--but I can say for sure that I am not as bad as I used to be. I do the laundry. I do the floors. I suffer. I don’t do the taxes, though. Meg does those. I don’t suffer that much.

I have numerous excuses for my past misconduct, but in my heart I know it came down to what I could get away with. When I started domestic life the first time, I was still in college. If no one told me to clean my room, I didn’t. Never mind making dinner or washing dishes.

When Meg and I got married, we were both working all the time. We outsourced a lot of domesticity. But when, after our second child was born, Meg started writing novels, her schedule was more flexible than mine, so she did more (much more) at home than I did. Then I started writing too, and we were back to even in terms of outside demands.

Ah, but old habits are hard to break. Especially when you don’t even particularly want to break them. On some level. every man knows he should do his fair share. But when it comes to domestic partnership, most men are teenagers at heart. We don’t like to clean. Many of us don’t cook that well. Drive the kids to school? The hugs are nice, but it’s not long before you don’t even get those, just a blur of disappearing backpack. I suppose domestic chores are satisfying in some Puritanical way, but I’m so not a Puritan.

So I had to be coaxed. At one point we made lists of things that had to get done and divided them between us. I was clever. I love Meg insanely, but I did my best, while trying to seem sympathetic and supportive, to fill my list with easy chores. It was kind of like negotiating for kisses in the drive-in-movie. Of course I love you. Of course I respect you. You can trust me.

I won’t say I’m totally facon, but, as I said, I’m better. Of course, Meg and I have been married twenty-five years, and it was only two weeks ago that I conceded to make dinner every other night (which, but my definition, includes ordering pizza). She’s too gracious to say so, but it must have been a pain for her to bring me along. Kind of like living with a toddler for a really long time.

We watched the PBS special on the women’s liberation movement, and it got me wondering about why women don’t have any help in getting their husbands and boyfriends to be full partners at home. In the workplace, the unequal workload that falls on women at home would be grounds for a sex-discrimination suit. We no longer expect women to deal with workplace gender inequality by themselves. We give them help with laws that require (mostly) that they be treated equally. No such laws exist for work at home.

Business and domestic relationships are completely different, you say. A boss just wants your contribution to the business. A domestic partner adores you and would do anything for you. That’s the theory. You be the judge if it is the practice.

Half of all marriages end in divorce. Of the remaining half, let’s be generous and say half of those are marriages of equals; in the other half, women do more than men. (I am omitting what I consider to be the statistically insignificant number of relationships in which men do more than women). That means that three quarters of marriages aren’t working so well. Maybe the half that end in divorce had some marriages of equals, but that doesn’t seem too likely. A woman can overlook a lot of faults in a man who can wash, dry and fold; I’m living proof.

My facts are purely guesses, of course, but I’ll bet they aren’t far off. It is indisputable, I think, that women still do more, likely much more, of the work in the home than do men. For those who want careers outside the home, it holds them back. They may do the extra work, but few think it’s fun or fair.

Which brings me to this question: Why should women have to bear all the burden of changing their men? When it comes down to it, the tools they have aren’t all that great. An appeal to fairness can feel like pleading, which is not good for self-esteem. And you can’t roll out a big gun like “You don’t love me” too often or it becomes true.

Why not give women another tool? One that is more emotionally neutral. One that doesn’t depend on willpower or wile. A tool like they have in the workplace. Why not give them a legal right to have their husbands do half the housework? I’m not sure how such a right would be enforced. Lawsuits seem unlikely. Divorce would almost certainly come before court. But how about some kind of mediation? Like the arbitrations used so often in business.

Make a list of chores. If the couple can’t agree, the mediator decides who has to do what. Just having that kind of independent determination would cause a lot of men to do better. And wives and girlfriends wouldn’t have to beg or use the heavy artillery of love, sex and guilt to get the dishes washed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Vocational Training

When was the last time you read Homer in the original Greek? How about Latin? Can you speak Latin? Read it? Me neither.

But it hasn’t been that long since, if you were highborn, tutors taught you those ancient languages as an essential part of your education as a Renaissance Man (not so much emphasis on Renaissance Women in those days). Men like Thomas Jefferson were raised this way. As a matter of birth and privilege, they took their places as our thinkers and policy makers, the heirs to Aristotle and Plato.

Not many pursuing a classical liberal education today have a place waiting for them at the table of power. They are educated to be founding fathers, but they end up waiting tables or signing on as management trainees in businesses they know nothing about except that they offer health-care coverage.

I saw a program on public television recently about “immersive learning.” Kids in middle school were building robots to compete with each other. Students in high-school statistics classes were designing and conducting election exit polls and analyzing the responses. No one was drifting off to sleep at her desk.

The program made me think of my son Nicholas’s experience with robotics and musical theatre, both starting in middle school. Each was deep immersion. Each inspired enduring passion. Today, a junior in college, Nick is studying computer science and singing in the men’s glee club. On the side (I hope), he’s programming for a Silicon Valley start-up.

In college, I thought I wanted a broad liberal arts education, although I had no idea what that meant, not really. That was what I had been taught would make me a Renaissance Man, which sounded like a cool thing to be (and probably was, during the Renaissance). My course of study as an English major improved my understanding of how people behave in novels and plays but did nothing for my ability to affect any living person’s behavior. It was enervatingly passive. I had no idea what my place in the world might be. I could not see myself making a difference to anyone about anything.

In law school, I acquired a trade. I didn’t cure cancer, but it was a heck of a lot more satisfying than sitting around philosophizing impotently. High school and college were long paths to the law, longer than they needed to be. Law (like medicine and engineering, for instance), is its own little universe of rules and logic. Maybe if I'd gotten turned onto law in middle school or high school, I could have avoided all that listless wandering about in college, wondering what it was all about.

Here’s what I tell my children (as I remember it; they may say something different): Find something you love and do it. Actively look for it. Don’t wait for it to fall into your lap while you check off curriculum requirements. The flush of academic achievement is like sex: it’s a lot of fun, but it will not to sustain you if you don’t really care about what (or whom) you’re studying. Bend your education to your passion, not the other way around. Work hard at what you love. Get good at it. Do something no one else can do.