Monday, September 1, 2008

Men's Work

As I was scraping the peeling paint and rust off the wrought iron fence at the front of the house with the blazing sun beating down on me, I couldn't help but think that this fence will likely be gone in a year's time. The dream was to have some landscaping done this year, replacing the wall/fence. But when the quotes came in much higher than anticipated, it got moved to the back burner. When we had the house painted, I foolishly didn't have them paint the fence since a fear of heights was the only thing keeping me from painting the house myself. I tend to underestimate the amount of work that such a job entails. Exterior painting is much more challenging than its interior counterpart. It has to be over 10C with no rain forecast for at least 48 hours, which this summer has been a challenge. The paint purchased in early June has been sitting in the dining room waiting for a good stretch of weather when I had time to do it. Since the downpour on Friday, we've had blue skies and sunshine all weekend, so this was my chance.

We have been in our house for three years now, but rarely have we spoken to the neighbours other than those on either side of us. I recognize many of them, and I'm sure that they know us too. But what do we really have to talk about? They are mostly retired Italian & Portuguese couples who hold court on their front porches, keeping the pavement freshly watered every day, and chatting in languages that we don't speak. We are not married and we don't have any children, so it is hard for them to relate to us. They call us the Canadians. We're the newcomers who are changing their neigbourhood. I discovered that the best way to get to know everybody is to do some yard work. When you use a bucket of water and sponge instead of a garden hose to wash the fence, people take notice. My water efficient technique really turned some heads. And why was I doing this work, and not the man of the house? Painting is men's work.

I was careful to catch all the paint drips on the curly patterned wrought iron fence as the men of the neighbourhood shuffled by, admiring my handiwork. They all took the opportunity to comment and encourage, and to get a closer look at this freaky woman who was doing men's work. I'm a novelty. Dozens of cars circled the block for parking spaces close to the street fair on College Street, as I moved on to the brickwork, covering up the last of the pink. Three men close to my own age were making their way to their parked car and couldn't help but comment on what a strange sight it is to see a woman with a paint brush. I just laughed it off. The wives were straggling behind, and the one guy waited for them to catch up so that he could show his wife that women can paint. They too marvelled at my skill and talent with the brush. Clearly the division of labour in their house must fall along the traditional gender lines. If she wanted the bedroom repainted, she'd have to convince her husband to do it. But not here. I'm too independent to let gender hold me back from doing what I want.

The truth is that I've always been attracted to the more male activities: painting, putting out the garbage, plumbing and math. I was one of only a few women in my university engineering classes so I'm accustomed to standing out. But in my family, there were no gender lines. I thought that it was because I have no brothers and because we lived on a farm, so we all had to pitch in to get stuff done, inside and out. My sister and I piled wood, drove the tractor, trapped ground hogs, and spent hours weeding the garden. When I was four years old, my parents dug out the basement by hand. Watching my mom carry buckets of soil and rocks up the stairs must have had an impact on me. Clearly, women can do anything that men can do. She painted and wallpapered, and cut the grass. My Dad took me with him to cattle auctions. My grandmother would not hesitate to grab the riffle to get rid of a pesky ground hog. But there is one place where gender lines remained: cooking and cleaning. That was always women's work in my family. Women could do it all, and then some.

I feel bad for Dan. I know that all the neighbours look at him and wonder why he doesn't do his duty. But they don't see him cooking dinner every night or vacuuming. Truth is that I won't let him paint, work in the garden or do the laundry. I think that I'm better at it, and it drives him crazy. But, he lets me do all the men's work that I want to do. He grew up in a house of boys with two working parents, so he's not afraid of a little women's work. Plus, he's a much better cook than me. He brought me glasses of water every 15 minutes today, to make sure that I wouldn't dehydrate in the sun. And when I was done painting, he served me a bowl of home cooked chili and opened a beer for me. I'm sure that it's hard for the neighbours to understand, but at least the painting got done. And they can all appreciate a clean and tidy front lawn.