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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mr. Fix Shit

In case you've been living underneath a life-size Sphinx made of foam core and cat litter, you know that we re-elected Barack Obama recently.  A bunch of different demographics came together to make that possibility a reality-- so the news media says-- and it's looking like minorities, women, and "the young" played a significant role in the President's validation.

At 32, I guess I no longer qualify as "the young".  I think membership in that particular subsection goes to 18-25 year-olds, it might even go as high as thirty-year-olds, but it definitely doesn't extend to those of us born in 1980.  I know for sure that I'm not a woman, because I just played with myself recently and I came very quickly, and we all know that only happens to men.  (Sensitive ones, especially.)  Now, the more complicated question-- am I a minority?-- gives me a slight pause, and rightfully so.  After all, my father was born in Iraq, then emigrated (read: fled) to Israel, the emigrated (read: ran away from his religion and his parents) to America, and married my mother, a half-Ukranian/half-Hungarian euro mutt.  But, ask anyone who's ever seen me dance, and then tell you without hesitation that I'm white.

White male.

White space.


Am I, though?  Maybe, maybe not.  I don't know.  Guess it depends on who's seen me cut a rug at a Bar Mitzvah recently.  One thing I know for sure is that I'm a Jewish husband (and father, but let's stick with husband for right now.) and while I don't know if the number of Jewish husbands who came out in support of Obama is statistically significant, one thing I do know is that there are some stereotypes about Jewish husbands.

The one with which I'm most familiar is that "Jewish husbands don't beat their wives".  A bigoted follow-up to that is "they just hide their Macy's cards", and that was all good fun, and we all had a jolly good laugh.

I realized this weekend that there is also a stereotype about Jewish husbands relating to their inclination to engage in household repairs/improvements, but that, according to which Jewish husband you're talking to/about, the stereotype is radically different.

Take my father-in-law.  He's seventy, doddering, bewildered, hyper-intelligent, super disorganized, mechanically inclined, and attentionally defective.  Nothing makes him prouder than to install something, or create something, or refine something, or correct something around his house, or ours.  As he mentioned to me this weekend, one of the reasons he's so hell-bent on fixing things himself is that he's cheap, and no matter how much sawdust you get everywhere (EV.  ERY.  WHERE.) or how many times you have to drive to Home Depot (three in one day) because you forgot to buy something (that you already owned) it's a damn sight cheaper than picking up the phone and hiring a professional to do it for you.

Which is where this Jewish husband comes in.

Last week, our plumber installed a new kitchen faucet and repaired two toilets in our house.  Total cost: $350.  Could I have done any or all of these repairs myself?  Um, why spend energy, time, and many hot, furious tears to find out?  Are we well-off?  Absolutely not, but my wife and I are both employed, and we make enough money to know that we can call a plumber or an electrician every now and then and it's not going to give us Hoover pockets.

There are things I can do, and there are things I can't do, and there are things that I maybe could do but probably shouldn't do, and I strongly believe that, if I look at a project and my gut says "back away" then that is what I should do.  My wife's dresser drawer came off its track.  A strategically-placed screw solved the issue.  Gut said, "you can do that", so I did that.  Am I going to spend hours fucking around and potentially irreparably damaging the porcelain device that hauls away my family's feces?

Not this Jewish husband.

And not this Jewish husband's father, either.

When I was a boy, and I'm sure for a long time before I existed, my father mowed the lawn of our family home.  He trimmed all the hedges and he painted the outside and inside of the house when it needed it, he cleaned the gutters and unclogged drains and did things to the hot water boiler that I don't understand and he built a big wooden ramp for me to drive my pedal car on and he fixed and he maintained and he used his rough, careworn paws like they were tools themselves.  And one day, much much later, while we were watching out the dining room window together as Frank the gardener mowed our lawn for us, he turned to me and said,

"And I always said, 'as soon as I can afford to pay some motherfucker to do all this fuckin' sheet for me, dat's exactly what dee fuck I'm gonna do'."

I suppose, after all those years, there was nothing he felt he had to prove anymore, and it must feel pretty liberating to send a plumber a check instead of being on your hands and knees on a bathroom floor underneath a sink for five hours, if you don't have to.  My father-in-law and his son have just spent two days trying to install a clothes dryer for my mother-in-law.  They're connecting a pipe using brass wire meant to be used for a bassoon.  And, wonder of wonders: they did it, and they're happier than pigs in shit about it.  And you know-- that's fine, for them.  That's just fine.  

Sometimes I feel guilty or incompetent or like I'm not measuring up somehow to the challenge of being a homeowner, being a husband, being a father.  There are things I should be doing that I don't do, effort not being applied, energy wasted, money flying out the doors and the windows and wallets and pockets.  Then I remember bringing my father glass after glass of 7-Up as he perspired through his shirt, his bald spot glistening in the July sun and his hands bleeding as he manically tore out foot after foot after foot of hedges that lined my family's house.  He just couldn't take it anymore.  Trimming them made him physically ill, or mentally ill-- or both.  And he wasn't quite at the stage where he had embraced the idea of paying someone else to trim them for him.  He hadn't made that psychological leap yet, he wasn't ready to move from one stereotype of the Jewish husband to the other.  He was still in that mindset that it had to be all him, all the time, at every moment, doing every thing: fixing, making, doing, being, providing, surviving, maintaining and straining, all for his family, all for an ideal.  All for love.

And finally, one day, he let go.  He let go of all of that.  Not the love, of course, never that, but of the idea that it always had to be him.  He's able to exist now, in a world of handymen and plumbers and electricians and contractors and gardeners.  And I think he's happier now, and I love that.  A few months ago, we told him that we were going to finally attack the insidiously weeded over flower beds in front of our house, to make the place look less like Boo Radley's residence and more like a place that isn't the scourge of the neighborhood.  His brow furrowed with momentary concern as he asked,

"Mummy-- you're not going to do that fuckin' shit yourself, are you?"

"No," I said to him, privately smiling at the memory of him ripping out hedges with his hands in 1988, "no fucking way."