Barbara Ehrenreich's recent essay on housekeeping (Harper's, April, 2000) sheds bright light... with correspondingly dark shadows.
Ms. Ehrenreich mentions the "ghostly pursuits" of "stock trading, image-making and opinion polling," and casts gentle aspersion on "opinion makers, culture producers, talking heads and celebrities." But she fails to examine the shallowness of post-War culture and the decerebrate premises that form its shakey foundation.
Ms. Ehrenreich might ask whether those of us with credentials, certificates and degrees have 'more important things to do than keeping house?' Even if the nation's housekeepers are not "scumballs" as suggested by the CEO of a national housecleaning company, clearly these menials have "less important things to do" than we credentialed "professionals."
According to its Greek roots -- "oikos" and "logos" -- "ecology" means "knowledge of home," or simply, "how to keep house."
Of course, "God takes out the garbage eventually" but may take two or three geological eons getting around to it. In the meantime, by fashioning ourselves in the image of deity, housecleaning might seem, not only essential to ecological integrity but positively divine.
Apparently, our careers --- punctuated by bitter disputes over "who (else )" does the housecleaning --- are more important than survival of the biosphere.
Probing the roots of delegated housework, we find credentialed professionals determined to supplant the real, physical work of the world with virtual (and surrogate) realities by which we exercise technological control of the immediate environment while ignoring (and oddly tolerating) the collapse of larger environments that actually envelope us --- both physical and social.
We have linked an essentially spurious "information economy" to a pseudo-meritocracy that favors the intellectually top-heavy. We have seduced "the best and the brightest" to create clever "programs" and "automated production systems" whose upshot is the degradation (or elimination) of brawny trades and physical artisanship. As a result of this highly-intellectualized power play, owners, managers and technocrats seize an increasingly disproportionate slice of the global "resource pie."
Lacking "real jobs," the "well-educated" create "info-work," a dubious enterprise that obliges us to stare at our "monitors" as if the phosphorescent glow were a virtual nipple promising ceaseless suck. It surpassses strange that we don't consider how the monitor - an endless font of mercenary images - monitors us. Neil Postman argues that "information is garbage and ourselves garbage collectors." Whether this assessment is accurate, it is cautionary that The System may have reduced us to dump scavengers.
We have replaced rationally-grounded moral quest with the allure of visceral imagery and other superficial satisfactions. Lusting after "hot" IPOs and desireable stock options, we have surrendered to the material urge for "more stuff" and the bluntly commodified impulse to buy it.
Our forced march to the receding horizon of "modernity and progress" converts us into busybodies whose largely meaningless work bears a certain self-justifation. We may not be able to stop the self-destruction, but surely we can flee faster, taking fleet pleasure in the ersatz consolations that the Machine produces in mind-numbing abundance.
Which begs the question: What bottomless hole do we "fill" with these "things," these meaningless trophies of "success?"
In the specific context of Erhenreich's article, I'm intrigued that the total number of hours women spend on housework has declined by half since 1965 --- 30 hours per week down to 17.5.
I'm a 52 year old male and part-time house-husband. I observe that women fixate on household functions that many men deem relatively unimportant --- vacuuming, frequent floor-washing and constant 'picking up.' I also note that women's blinkered focus on housework is motivated by an indelible urge to make the house "look good," an impulse whose underlying motivation is, often, to please other women. My wife's most vigorous cleaning sprees, for example, take place when women are "coming over." When my men friends visit, it's catch as catch can.
Ms. Ehrenreich notes the "relaxation of standards" that cut the domestic workload in recent decades. Nevertheless, she laments that this relaxation has not been accompanied by "a redistribution of chores."
Why does Ms. Ehrenreich play down "the relaxation of standards" while placing disproportionate emphasis on the need "to redistribute chores?" If men had not been willing for women to drop half their largely self-imposed workload, women would still be starching collars and ironing underpants.
True, men do not participate in "house-cleaning" on a par with women. However, Ehrenreich does cite the statistic that men have increased their domestic participation in the last 30 years while women's investment has declined precipitously.
Ironically, while we see the benefits of lowered domestic expectation, women -- not men -- have proceded to heighten many expectations. This constant bar-raising is - almost exclusively - a womanly trait. I do not know any man who would "make them do it."
A recent study revealed that American women now spend more time "doing the wash" than peasant and tribal women lugging soiled laundry to riverside. The washing machine -- supposedly a labor-saving device -- has provided women with a rationale for "raising the standard" so that clothes get worn once and are immediately tossed in the wash. We would do well to recall -- particularly in a global context -- that "the filthy rich" coincide with "the squeaky clean."
In stark contrast, Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay observes that "His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean."
At every turn, I encourage women to lay off the housework.
Since the sixties, women have made great strides in this regard -- reducing their housework by half -- but there's still a long way to go.
If necessary, think of further "relaxation of standards" as a new angle on Lysistrata's sexual abstention.
Women of the world! Do NO housework until men "take up the slack."
Of course, it's arguable whether women can cope with men's lower standards. Which begs another important question... In the gender-driven dispute over housecleaning, why should men be held to a higher standard, rather than women to a lower? The latter seems intrinsically more reasonable and therefore wiser. (In recent decades men have their adjusted standards and expectations in order to accommodate women in the workplace. On the homefront, however, women have made little if any change -- certainly there's been no change in their "tidiness expectations" - by way of accommodating men.)
The despoliation of the planet is driven by a bar-raising mechanism directly analogous to the lofty standards whereby women convert domestic tranquility into low-intensity warfare: whatever is enough today is insufficient for tomorrow. I understand this predatory logic but disagree. (I also note that the "household economies" of Buddhist, Christian and Hindu monasteries indicate that the relentless quest for "more" does not coincide with any of the world's great wisdom traditions.)
Recently, I paid a vist to a female physician friend. No sooner did we meet amidst her kids' clutter than she apologized for the mess. I interjected: "Don't apologize. In a sane world, we wouldn't pick up - except at rare intervals - until the youngest child turns 18."
The most revealing part of Ehrenreich's analysis was gleaned from her month-long employment with a national housekeeping firm. As soon as she began this work as a "menial," she realized that housecleaning clients -- mostly women -- are not interested in substantive cleanliness, but rather in how surfaces "look." In fact, according to Enrenreich's "field-work," water -- "the universal solvent" -- is rarely used, and never used HOT.
"The system is not very sanitary," says Ehrenreich, adding that the system places primary emphasis on "cosmetic touches."
This emphasis on "cosmetics" leads to the thorny issue of women's primeval involvement with "cosmetics" and superficial beautification. To what extent do domestic "battle lines" represent a projection of women's urge to paint faces and girdle midriffs, whereas men do little to beautify their countenance or inhibit gravity's tug on pot bellies?
According to Ehrenreich, "in a less gender-divided social order, husbands and boyfriends would more readily do their share of the chores." Is it appropriate for women to expect men to participate in chores when the underlying motivation is, significantly, "cosmetic?"
Ms. Ehrenreich repeats the old chestnut that women "clean inside," and men "clean outside." Unfortunately, she dismisses this observation as insignificant. I suspect her cavalier dismissal is rooted in the fact that "heterosexually coupled" women, in general, don't work "outside" enough to see how much work men perform in this domain. On the other hand, "inside cleaning" is visible to both partners, making it easier to focus political limelight on men's relative "non-compliance" inside the "visible" home.
Beyond these considerations, there's a much deeper matrix that Ehrenreich fails to examine. This matrix is epitomized by Carl Jung's observation that "where the will to power predominates, love is lacking."
I don't doubt that many men are "scum-buzzards" on the domestic maintenance front. But I'm more certain that women make a mistake when they try to reduce the poetry of life to mathematical equations. Although the drive to distribute work evenly comes with a built-in justification -- and although this attempt to divide labor supplies facile political satisfaction -- the underlying impetus is destructive, both personally and interpersonally.
By emphasizing precise equivalvence in chore performance, the quality of mercy is strained.
In the end, Shylock may claim "her" pound of flesh. But Portia is cannibalized in the process.
It is also true that Love chooses "to do for The Other" because Love chooses to serve the beloved. In this light, men and women are both encouraged to make choices that liberate the sacred centrality of Heart. (Still, this conundrum remains: given the tight relationship between love and freedom, is it appropriate to "do for the other" when "the other" is driven by compulsion?)
I'll close with a couple of stories concerning my Mom and my friend Frances' Mama Vito.
Not long ago, when my wife, Denise, asked Mom what it was like raising five children, she replied that it wasn't "a big deal. It just happened."
"Way back then," child-rearing "was what it was" and there was deep satisfaction in the acceptance of the fact that reality simply imposed a set of circumstances that could be resisted or accepted. Except for the idle rich (whose lives are NOT to be envied), physical work is an inevitability that has traditionally been the foundation of physical health and a springboard to profound satisfaction.
Furthermore, "the nature of things" insures that work is never equitably distributed. (Ironically, the harriedness of modern life has grown in direct proportion to the availability of "labor-saving devices" --- the sort of paradox which, according to Lao Tzu, routinely characterizes the profoundest truths.)
On the other hand, unlike my Mom, Mama Vito spent her life cooking for a huge extended family. Yet, her "icebox" was never visited by the Jolly Green Giant and never gave lodging to a TV dinner. Mama V's daughter, Fran -- like most daughters of recent immigrant women -- chose to work in the marketplace, a choice that almost always pre-empts mastery of traditional culinary arts. (A pathologist from Duke Medical Center recently confided that if Mama Vito's Mediterranean Diet were consumed by all humankind, it would contribute more to planetary health than every drug in the pharmacopoeia, with the exception of antibiotics and insulin.)
It is has been said that "when a shaman dies, a library of irreplaceable (ethno)botanical knowledge dies with him."
When "all the Mama Vitos" die -- and a major "extinction event" is currently in progress -- analogous libraries of domestic and familial arts will evanesce like smoke on the wind.
How many of us -- men or women -- in our headlong rush to putative progress are contributing to libraries half so valuable as those maintained by our ancestors?
Chesterton said that "to be thoroughly modern is to confine oneself to an ultimate narrowness."
The breadth of Mama Vito's table argues well on behalf of ancestral liberality.
Nowadays, most of us who live by our wits believe --- or at least pretend --- that work loads must be divided between men and women with mathematical precision.
It may be so. Time will tell.
However, if only for the exercise, shift your attention from modernity's seductive menu of "possible futures" and focus on "the certain past." The annals of yester-year contain the well-writ lesson that transcendent meaning always accompanies the love of "ecos" -- the love of "home."
If we took this lesson to heart, we might replace the jejune primacy of Self with the transcendental significance of Self-sacrifice.
In the process, we could salvage our savaged world.