Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spring cleaning, part 3

During my break, I indulged in a little spring cleaning of the small stack of magazines that I have not read: Back issues of Bon Appetit (for which I confess to having not much taste, but which we felt forced to accept when Conde Nast shuttered Gourmet, after we had renewed our subscription), The Nation (which I read for Katha Pollitt, for arts and books coverage, and for the occasional need to feel righteously enraged), and The Economist (which might be the last newspaper standing to cover international news and science journalism in any meaningful way).

I skimmed. I clipped. I recycled.

It was from The Economist that I clipped an item on “The rise of the handyman” in Britain. The Economist reports:

Domestic help has long been a mostly female preserve, involving nannies, cleaners and laundry maids. That is changing, according to a forthcoming study by Majella Kilkey of the University of Hull and Diane Perrons of the London School of Economics. The pair reckon that nowadays 39% of domestic helpers in Britain are men, up from 17% in the early 1990s.

Now, the article, in its lede, gives the impression that professional men themselves are hiring handymen to take on odd jobs so that they can spend more time with their children. Not until the penultimate paragraph does the report note “it is mostly mothers who contract and supervise the workers.” (The article also adds “for the most part fathers do – whatever the cynics suspect – spend the time thus liberated with their families, rather than in the office, at the gym or in the pub.”)

I am curious to know about whether or not the trend holds in the United States, but I can imagine that here, too, not only are traditional men’s odd jobs being “outsourced” (e.g., the task formerly known as mowing the lawn being assigned to landscaping companies that employ migrant workers), but the outsourcing itself creates another form of house work (i.e., domestic management) for women. In my experience, it is typically the women who trade suggestions and recommendations and circulate the names and numbers of plumbers, electricians, contractors, and so on. Not to mention the women who make the arrangements to be at home for the service call or take the car for the oil change or the repairs.

In other words, as odd jobs become outsourced, the task becomes "shopping" for service, which falls into line with already existing ideas, in American culture and society, about what men do and what women do.

(For the record, StraightMan and I look on this type of home management as work that we share. Like laundry and meals and parenting. Which is part of the reason why I like him so much.)

In fact, StraightMan and I talk about the fact that as much as we need a wife - the kind who packs lunches for her Brady Bunches - we also need a husband. The kind with a tool belt. StraightMan seems secure enough in his masculinity to admit to the fact that while he is handy enough, he is not especially handy. Also, coupled with the demands and pressures of working in Higher Ed, he is not especially inclined toward doing odd jobs on the weekends. He really sees as his priority to be with Beanie and Bubbie (and with me).

So, I see parallels between the devaluing of odd jobs and, say, cleaning. The devaluing of odd jobs both shapes and mirrors shifts in ideas and practices of what it means to be a man today. The devaluing of odd jobs for professional men is not unrelated to their outsourcing to other men - for example, migrants and immigrants who are paid less and seen or heard little.

I think about Beanie and Bubbie: If children grow up with parents who do not clean the gutters, regrout the tub, and so on, then they learn nothing about the existence of gutters or the need for grout, much less about the tools of the trade, to say nothing of the skills required. They lose not only appreciation, but the ability to appreciate at all the effort and energy expended and the practice gained. They simply do not know or even notice.

I also see a distinction that is made between these kinds of work and, say, cooking, knitting, and woodworking, which arguably always commanded at least a bit of respect as "craft" and today have become revalued. (As an aside, I think there is much more to say about the interest in "craft" in academia - for example, The New Yorker published this review of the books Shop Class as Soulcraft and Richard Sennett's The Craftsman.)
By revalue, I do not necessarily mean a "return" to previous value, but the assignment of still other (new-to-them) value.

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