The Big SchlepPrint
Trapped in a world of women (and cats)
By Phillip Lopate
January 13, 2017
I live in a yin-dominated household with a wife, a daughter, and two female cats. In an attempt to provide me with male companionship, we recently got a third cat, a big white Himalayan brute, who indeed seems attached to me, though his motivation may just be opportunism, since I’m the one who feeds him. In any case, I am outnumbered. As the sole male, I am frequently regarded as an alien, under constant suspicion of being clueless. The women are always fussing over me, straightening my tie or collar, scratching a little toothpaste off my beard. I realize these attentions may indicate they are fond of me, but I feel like their Ken Doll. They may yell and scream all day long, but if I raise my voice once, they quiver in alarm: I become in their eyes the archetypically violent male, someone who must immediately seek anger management. At other times they show me an unwarranted respect, as though I were some sort of Wise Man. I keep trying to separate out how much their responses are geared to me, individually, and how much to their stereotypical notions of men.
Their main charge against me is that I am indifferent to domestic matters, which is largely though not wholly true. When I pipe in with opinions on such matters, I am quickly shushed, and told I Just Don’t Get It. So I retreat wounded (if secretly relieved) to my book. When, as often happens, I come home to find the television turned on to a cooking or home repair show, I go upstairs, where there is fortunately another TV, and watch sports or some obscure old movie on TCM. Eventually I wander down to participate dutifully in family life, only to intrude upon some mother-daughter squabble and be told to hold my tongue.
It goes without saying (though perhaps I should say it, to be on the safe side) that I deeply love my wife and daughter, and my life would be barren and lonely without them. Still, I resent the amount of mental space family dynamics takes up in my brain, when I would rather be thinking of loftier subjects, such as whatever I am reading at the moment (an excellent biography of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson, and a fine book about existentialism and phenomenology by Sarah Bakewell). Even when I make a good-faith effort to share the housework, volunteering to do the shopping, say, it is generally rebuffed. I am told I don’t really know how to select the best fruit and vegetables, or I usually buy the wrong brand of something.
Last week my daughter came up with the bright idea of throwing a Golden Globes party, inviting friends over for chili, salad, drinks, and dessert. I was puzzled: When had anyone in our family cared about the Golden Globes? But it was a pretext to entertain, on a weekend in which our daughter was getting bored with her parents’ oldster company, so we decided to honor her request. My wife is always saying she would like to entertain more. We make lists of possible invitees for a dinner party and usually nothing comes of it.
I am glad nothing comes of it, because on those occasions when we have had people over, my wife becomes super-tense in the hours of preparation, convinced that she is running out of time to cook or that the house is not in proper order, and this tension converts to anger alongside the conviction that she has to do everything by herself. Regardless of how much we pitch in, she clings to the belief that it is all falling on her shoulders—perhaps because hers is the general’s vision of what needs to be done and she has a hard time delegating to her troops, who will not do it as well as she could. This time, suffering from a bad cold, she had no choice but to enlist our help. I offered to vacuum, but the job was assigned to our daughter, because “Daddy doesn’t vacuum right.” I started to object that, the last time, I did a great job vacuuming, which even she had had to admit, but it is no use, I will never escape the stigma of inept vacuuming.
So I was sent out to buy supplies. Four times I braved the bitter cold, getting all the food, wine, beer, canola oil, and other necessities. Thinking it might be nice to have some snacks for our guests to munch on before the chili was served, I bought nuts, pretzels, hummus dip, and veggie chips (this last for a vegetarian woman friend who was coming over). My wife exploded when she saw the veggie chips, saying she hated them, they were so old-ladyish and ridiculously expensive, it was one more proof I Just Didn’t Get It, and I could bring them to my office at the university for all she cared, but under no circumstances would she ever allow them to be served at the party.
I thought it very unjust that all my efforts to procure the items on her list were negated by this seemingly harmless purchase. Not for the first time did I wonder why my wife became so incensed about what to me was a petty detail. I have to admit it was more or less the way I blew up when she accidentally threw out the Sunday Times Magazine before I could do the crossword puzzle, but I preferred to think at the time that it had something to do with the difference between men (rational, cool) and women (emotional, tempestuous).
The party came off smoothly, a dozen people showed up, ate all the food, and several stayed glued to the Golden Globes on television while others happily mingled. I noted that my wife and daughter comported themselves throughout as cheerful, charming hosts, showing not a shred of their earlier pessimism or tension. I felt pleased to belong to them and proud that I, an alien, had contributed to the evening’s success, if only as the designated schlepper.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.