The Sexes: Man vs. Vacuum Cleaner | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Sexes: Man vs. Vacuum Cleaner

Being a Husband was bad enough. Being an Inept Husband is more than a man should have to bear.

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It takes a while to get domesticated once you get married. It's been a year and a half now since I became a husband, a word I still cannot type without a shudder (Dagwood Bumstead! Ward Cleaver!), but the day does not go by that I don't add some useful tidbit to my collection of household lore.

Today, for example, I learned that a vacuum cleaner is not the ideal tool to sweep up nails with. Purely on theoretical grounds I could have predicted that, but there is nothing like a practical demonstration to bring a point home with vigor.

I did not feed the nails into the vacuum cleaner in person. This was done for me by John and Mary, who were cleaning the house for us. John and Mary are from Poland, which is not a technologically advanced society. You want to clean something in Poland, you take it out in the backyard and beat it on a flat rock. So it is not surprising that recent immigrants should have trouble with certain subtleties of vacuum cleaner operation.

The reason we were dealing with nails in the first place is that I was installing some cabinets in our so-called den. This consists of a large empty room with one chair and a cable TV jack in it. We think of it as the Zen approach to family recreation. We don't have a TV, we have the idea of a TV. Unfortunately, there is only so far you can take this concept with a bunch of smart-ass relatives, so we're putting in furniture and whatnot as the cash dribbles in.

To mount the cabinets I employed the usual masculine techniques. I got wood chips and sawdust all over everything and swore a lot. The way I see it, you don't make a mess on the job, you're just not working. In keeping with this philosophy, if you lose a few nails in the rug, no big deal. Walk around in your bare feet for a few days and bingo, they turn up.

So, not to make excuses for John and Mary, but we're not talking ideal housecleaning conditions. They come in, vacuum the rug, suck up a couple nails, and suddenly it's Apocalypse Now. Horrible screeching noises fill the air. Sparks start flying out of the bottom of the vacuum cleaner.

One thing I'll say about John, though. He's not one to jump to rash conclusions. Someone else might have figured, hey, there's something wrong, maybe I better turn this thing off. Not John. He thinks maybe this is just one of those wacky, silly things that vacuum cleaners do. Maybe it'll go away by itself.

So he lets the vacuum cleaner run for five minutes. By this time the thing is about to burst into flames. And then, amazingly, the ungodly racket does stop. Unfortunately, so does every other sign of mechanical activity.

By and by Mary comes to me and says they're having a little problem. I go down to investigate and find the vacuum cleaner is totally inoperable. I give it a shake. Little pieces of something rattle around inside.' I take off the cover and turn it upside down. Hunks of shredded machinery fall out, along with a few nails.

After having a few words with John, I decide I will fix the vacuum cleaner myself. I am not totally unqualified to do this. In college I spent a summer repairing power tools and what the hell, you get the covers off them and they all look alike. So I go out to the vacuum cleaner store and buy some parts and go home and set to work.

It turns out one of the new parts goes in with screws, but the old part was put in with rivets. The rivets obviously must be removed. I try to drill them out, without success.

When I was repairing power tools the first thing I learned was, if at first you don't succeed, get a bigger hammer. (Perhaps you have had dealings with my company.) I decide to bash the rivets out with the nail punch.

I whack away a few times my wife walks in and comes over to see what I'm up to. I note with satisfaction that the rivets are giving way. Then I turn the part over and find out that this is because I've managed to totally demolish the plastic housing the rivets are mounted in.

My wife gives me one of those you-idiot looks.

"Life is a process of exploration by which we grow and change," I say.

"Fine," she says. "Next time you want to explore the vacuum cleaner, why don't you just jump up and down on it so we can save ourselves the trouble of spending $35 on new parts."

Well, there is not much you can say to somebody with an attitude like that. I retreat to the other end of the house to mull things over. Right now my plan is to go to the vacuum store tomorrow and buy some more parts, thereby showing the same indomitable persistence that got this country into Vietnam.

In the meantime, trying to get a different perspective on the situation, I begin reading a book that my wife got for Christmas, which, if anything, makes me feel worse. The book is Living Out Loud by Anna Quindlen, the recently retired New York Times columnist.

I did not regularly read Anna Quindlen's column when it appeared in the paper. I have nothing against her; she is a fine writer. It's just that she is so . . . female.

I say this not out of casual sexism but rather out of considered, thoughtful prejudice. There are certain womanly patterns of thought that are opaque to the male mind, and enthusiasms that strike a man as, well, silly. Example: Anna gets up at 5:30 AM to watch royal weddings and spends the whole day eating peanut M&Ms, crying at the exchange of vows, and calling up her friends and saying, "Is this great or what?" Sheesh.

But she does have a way of getting to you sometimes. One of the columns reprinted in the book talks about the difference between the Husband and the Boyfriend, Quindlen's two chief male categories. Husbands are dependable but boring, Boyfriends are dashing but flakes. Recalling Gone With the Wind, she describes Ashley Wilkes as a Husband, Rhett Butler as a Boyfriend. Rhett Butler, you'll remember, is the guy played by Clark Gable. You can see where this is going, and it ain't pretty.

Reading this gives me pause. Notwithstanding the occasional setback with household appliances, I consider myself a pretty handy guy. At one time I thought this was an advantage. I know guys who couldn't screw in a light bulb without shorting out half the north side. I felt superior.

Now I have a terrible moment of self-revelation. My God, I'm a Husband after all. Instead of handiness I should have been working on a mustache and a rakish wink.

What's more, judging by the experience of the last two hours, not only am I a Husband, I am an inept Husband. My wife, to be sure, thinks my attempts at being Mr. Fixit are cute, provided they don't cost any money.

In my heart I know Anna Quindlen is right. Ladies love outlaws. No man with any romance in him can stand to think his chief claim to female admiration is that he is a good provider.

I am disconsolate for some minutes. Then I think: hey, you do what you can. I am 37 years old. I will play to my strengths. Tomorrow I will fix that vacuum cleaner or die.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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