In praise of housework

It was with infuriated amusement that I recently read Stephen Marche’s “The Case for Filth” in The New York Times (Dec. 8). Marche – a novelist, Esquire contributing editor and author of a forthcoming book on the end of the gender wars – writes that men in our post-feminist age are doing no more housework than they ever did. He concludes:

“The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.

“A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.”

He’s kidding, right? I mean, this is some kind of post-modern snark, isn’t it? Is it possible that anyone thinks that the solution to mediocrity is to dumb everyone down? For that is what he’s really proposing. Somebody’s poor, well, let’s not bring him up but instead bring everyone else down to the poverty level. A student is failing, well, let’s tell the bright kids not to study.

To say nothing of the germs and disease. There’s a reason bathrooms need to be cleaned. But Marche doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between cleaning up after yourself and Martha Stewart domestic diva-dom. (I must confess here that when I caught an episode of her self-satisfied TV show in which she proposed making Christmas stockings out of old bed sheets, I had to flip the channel immediately. That would be my idea of the Ninth Circle of Hell.)

But Marche writes: “Fifty years ago, it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and to vacuum drapes. They were ‘necessary’ tasks.” I would argue that only one of those was ever a necessary task. Guess which. You iron sheets if, like Stewart, you are a perfectionist. You vacuum drapes to get rid of the dust that adds considerably to respiratory problems. Ever here of sinusitis, Marche?

Not that there’s anything wrong with ironing sheets, if you’re into that. Indeed, there is a certain aesthetic, psychological and physical pleasure in a well-ordered house. A clean, attractive house makes you feel good. Knowing you contributed to it makes you feel better. And it helps keep your muscles toned and your weight in check. 

If that weren’t true, people who can certainly afford help wouldn’t be doing some of their own household chores. I can remember the bass-baritone Simon Estes telling me that he loved to do laundry. A big, burly bass-baritone who sang Wotan, the king of the gods in The Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” cycle, fluffing and folding? It gave him instant gratification – much like singing. Singers – who can’t be around dust – are big on housework. The coloratura Natalie Dessay once said that the first thing she does when she comes to New York to perform is to scrub down her apartment.

In his stunning memoir, “Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy,” the actor Dirk Benedict – Face on “The A-Team” and Starbuck on “Battlestar Galactica – wrote about the satisfaction he got from washing his car.  And tennis legend Martina Navratilova once gave an interview in which she extolled the relaxing joys of vacuuming (a favorite task of mine).

Another confession:  I, along with several male and female relatives, inherited our family’s neatnik gene.  But over the years, I’ve learned to let go of my inner Martha Stewart to “settle” instead for excellence.  I observe the Three Second Rule:  If, for example, a grape falls to the floor and is there for three seconds or less, I pop it into my mouth.  And I believe in integration in the laundry room.  Colored clothes and whites mingle happily in my Samsung, which sings Schubert’s “Die Forelle” when the wash is finished.  (For the money I paid, it should sing the entire score of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”)

But I still take pride and pleasure in fresh linens, scrubbed floors, clean windows, a tidy lawn.  And I enjoy sharing these tasks.  It feels like home.  In my forthcoming novel “Water Music,” the four main characters – Dylan, Alí, Daniel and Alex – share an idyll at Alex’s family home on Mykonos, cooking together, cleaning up after themselves, even doing laundry. (Dylan and Alí in particular discover that there’s more to a washing machine than the spin cycle.)

Far from being “a sign of a wasted life,” a clean house is an opportunity for bonding and for thinking. And if housework has a thankless, repetitive element about it, well, doesn’t almost everything? The trick is to find what’s different in what’s the same, you know, the old Mary Poppins’ “Spoonful of Sugar.”

No, the solution is not for everyone to become slobs but for men to help more. That way everyone will have more time – to do whatever Marche thinks we should be doing.