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Cleaning just isn't that easy

Published Oct. 9, 2005

After seven endless, cheerless days of doing housework, I decided it was time somebody passed out a little praise.

Approaching my wife on her bed of pain, and putting on my smarmiest smile, I asked how I was doing.

"You haven't learned one thing," said Louise, "since the last time you had to take care of the house, five years ago, when I broke my ankle."

This time around, Louise had a back problem. She had jumped into the pond back of our house and wrestled a 100-pound bull mastiff named Joy to shore, thus saving the venerable dog from drowning _ and badly spraining muscles in her back.

Doctors prescribed bed rest and muscle relaxers for Louise. I could have used the muscle relaxers myself after dealing with our other 15 bull mastiffs (including a dozen week-old puppies), as well as various strong-back tasks my wife has always performed.

Yet she wasn't overwhelming me with gratitude. "What do you mean, I haven't learned anything since your broken ankle?" I asked. "Then and now, I kept this house functioning."

She smiled tolerantly. "I don't know what I would have done without you. But you still don't sweep a floor before you mop it."

"Not really necessary," I said."Too many more important things to do."

"And you've never dusted anything in your life."

"Dusting!" I started to say that's not a proper thing for a man to do, but pulled back cagily, adding instead, "I never think of dusting."

"You want to do everything your way," she said and began laughing. "And your way can be pretty funny. Like you spent an hour in the play room, cleaning where the ceiling meets the walls with a broom. But you left the furniture full of dust."

She wasn't done. She was just warming up. "For days, you left the clothes I was wearing when I jumped into the pond in a pile on the kitchen counter."

Hotly I defended myself: "They were in a corner of the counter. I didn't notice them."

But this was only a temporary crisis, a few uncomfortable weeks for us both. Louise was getting better daily, able to do more and more around the house. Soon she would be her old self again, active as ever. Yet in this phase of our lives, we would never understand one another.

You hear a lot of talk, these days, about how men ought to do some of the housework. Of course they should _ only it isn't that easy. There is no discounting natural-born proclivities; there is such a thing as God-given talent.

I'm not saying men can't mop and sew and fry eggs as well as women, or that they shouldn't. I'm only saying that too much shouldn't be expected.

After all, we males have been defending our homes and hunting meat for our young and clerking in shoe stores for generations. It's not all that automatic to learn new skills.

"Since I had to take over all this woman's work," I said haughtily, "is there anything I've done right?"

"You help bottle-feed the puppies, and you make up a mean batch of formula," she admitted.

"And I go to the supermarket."

"And come back with odd cuts of lamb, and cans of ethnic food neither of us ever tasted, and exotic vegetables you don't know how to cook. And you forget things you were supposed to bring back."

Then Louise said something penetrating. "Maybe you think housework is beneath you."

"Maybe I do," I answered testily.

"And that," she said, smiling, "could be the problem."