THE TERRIBLE THING ABOUT SUNSHINE is how it highlights dust.
Bright sun in the wintertime isn’t too much of a problem because the days are short. If you work outside the home on a standard shift, you return in the dark. Are the porch lights on? Is it warm inside? Is there some of that lasagna left? Who cares about housework — we have no dusty wine glasses.
But now, horrors. The layers of fine river silt lay on the furniture in ominous defiance, and I know: no matter how diligently we fight back, nature will win. The layers will accumulate. We will be slowly preserved, pressed over millennia into a layer of striation as thin as cigarette paper. Then, suddenly, our detritus will be exposed in a tectonic event. A futuristic tool-user will dig into the rock and discover shards of a coffee mug, an amethyst ring with a peculiar engraving, a raccoon tooth, and a flash drive. From this cache, it will reconstruct our lives.
Housework may be the primary dividing line between men and women.
“What do you want me to do today?” John asks, as I leave for the office.
“The house is a mess,” I say. And then, because I have learned something over the decades — like, be specific — I say, “If you have time, you might want to dust and mop the dining room.”
“I think I’ll mow the back field,” John says.
“We’ve got forty-five-mile-an-hour winds.”
“Good. That’ll dry the grass.”
When the last ice age began to thaw, we humans — with our animals — were able to stop migrating to find feed. Warmer weather meant we could grow enough food for ourselves and our livestock in one place. We built permanent structures for all of us to live in: part barn, part house. Everything must have been hunky-dory for about two weeks.
That’s how long it took for someone to realize that since everything you owned didn’t have to fit on your back or the yak’s back — you could have two pots, maybe three, instead of one.
That’s when the conversation changed from, “Let us all pause and thank the great spirit for this abundant patch of teosinte,” to “Where’s my big pot?” followed by, “Filled with bear grease, right where you left it. If you think I’m going to be the only one who cleans up around here…”
This is why — I feel a doctoral thesis coming on — married couples are much happier when they’re in the car, hundreds of miles from home, looking for a place to eat breakfast.
A few months ago, the Journal of Family Issues published a study by researchers from the University of Missouri, Brigham Young University and Utah State University; the study surveyed 160 couples who’d been married for an average of five years and had at least one child under five. Slightly less than half of the women worked full- or part-time. The researchers found that “the more wives perceived that their husbands were participating in family work tasks, the better the relationships were for both spouses.”
The title of the piece when it was picked up in the popular press was “Marriage Research Shows That Couples Who Split Chores Are Happier.”
First, let’s ignore the fact that women in Utah and Missouri may not be exactly a universal cross-section of post-industrial female diversity. Let’s focus on the two key words: wives perceived.
The philosophical struggle between reality and perception that has consumed many a great mind over the centuries now manifests itself in clear, promotional acts. Research (conducted locally with people we know well) reveals that when a man vacuums, he leaves the machine in the middle of the room 83 percent of the time and it stays there until someone says, “Wow! The carpet looks amazing!” to which he adds (51 percent of the time), “I changed the bag, too.”
The crux of the problem is that there are two kinds of tasks: those with permanent results — refinishing end tables, say — and Sisyphean chores, like laundry. Men like to accomplish things that last. Things they can remember fondly while watching “Counting Cars.” Things like Mount Rushmore.
Women enjoy creating things that last, too, but it’s hard to chip away around the nose of Abraham Lincoln when you’re being stalked by hungry people in dirty clothes.
We are — by nature or by necessity — process-oriented. “Life is a journey,” we tell each other, and we stick up refrigerator magnets and stitch tiny pillows to reinforce the mantra.
And then we dust them.