Thursday, February 22, 2007

My Space

Last night, I was heading out for a short run and noticed a voice mail on my phone. One missed call and it was mom. The voicemail described, in painfully long detail, her new garage door. Rather than take all of the pleasure away from a conversation that could be highly engaging in person, I invited mom to dinner to hear more about this wonderful new garage door.

I went for a run, and showered quickly afterwards. Chris walked into the bathroom and stepped on to the scale. After shouting words at him like jumbo, too big to register, the scale wants some of its weight back, I opened the door and said, “and, by the way, my mom’s coming to dinner.” I shut the door.

“WHAT!?” he said.

I opened the door again – not very good for keeping the water in or the heat in but very good for making a dramatic point. “She’s coming over for dinner and she wants to tell you all about her new garage door.” I shut the door again.

Chris was thrilled.

Needless to say, it was about 20 minutes later when my mom arrived. We were in the basement stretching so I told her to come downstairs to join us and talk. Chris says something about being in his underwear which she quickly brushes off. “I’ve seen it all before,” she says as she settled upon the stairs reading to spin a story about her new garage door. That’s my mom. She gets freaked out by a bee but husband in underwear – not a problem.

We hear all about her new garage door – it’s buttons, it’s features, the infamous lock and light buttons which should never be pressed at any time. After this fascinating story, she settles quickly and comfortably into the mom role and starts walking around the basement.

“I see all of your little trinkets around,” she says, walking around carefully scanning things on the walls, shelves, and floors. By trinkets, she is referring to the mess of stuff scattered around our basement, including pictures from races, medals, bike parts, bikes, posters, and such.

She looks at me with that look – the look of what the hell is going on down here and how can you let this happen, Elizabeth. And she would say it just like that – E – LIZ – A – BETH like she only says when she is boiling underneath with interrogation or concern. How can you have a basement that looks like this, Elizabeth, when the rest of your house looks so nice. This basement, Elizabeth, would make a beautiful sitting area or a play room for your children but it’s filled with bike parts, Elizabeth, what are you going to do with all of your husband’s bike parts and why, Elizabeth, can’t you get him to clean up what was once a beautiful cream-colored basement with clean berber carpeting.

I read all of this in her face within seconds. I can see it there. I can see it almost pouring out of her mouth waiting for an answer.

“Mom, this is Chris’ safe place.”

She looks at me like she doesn’t care. Like I should know better, that the only safe place for a man in a home is the garage. Safe as in, all of his stuff is outside therefore the rest of the house is safe from a mess like this.

This was going to require further explanation.

“It’s like giving a dog a crate. You teach it to go in the crate, sleep in the crate, and love the crate. But if the dog is bad, you can’t reach in and pull it out of the crate. The crate is the dog’s safe place.”


The look in her eye tells me she doesn’t buy it.

“Mom, this is Chris’ crate. I can’t pull him out of it or scold him for what he does in it. IT IS HIS SAFE PLACE.”

I look over to Chris who, almost on cue, is playing with some bar tape on my cross bike. I half expect him to start licking himself or go shit in the corner like any bad dog in a crate, but instead he stands there smiling – thank god finally with his pants on – and rewrapping the tape.

“Let’s go upstairs,” I say to her, and hope that she will find something on the floor, or some dust on the table to distract her from this mess of a basement. I escort her upstairs to a more female-friendly level of the house.

This is what happens when you don’t live with a man anymore. And my mom hasn’t lived with a man in over 10 years. Her big house has been entirely her own space for nearly a decade. As such, she has forgotten how it is to live with a man, and his things, his tools, his trinkets. You forget that in a house that oozes with femininity and cleanliness, a man still needs a place for himself.

In a sense, it is similar to what Virginia Woolf wrote about in a room of one’s own. Woolf describes how a woman, living in a world with male-dominated ‘establishment’, needs money and personal space to have the freedom to create. Without this, all of her creative genius would remain unexpressed.

Which is why it’s important to give woman free reign of the majority of the house. She needs to express all of her creativity by decorating the house, cleaning the house, reorganizing the house, moving the books here, putting the lamp on that table. Even if you’re not a clean freak, you probably have your special way of organizing cans in the pantry, or utensils in the drawer, a way of folding the clothes. A system that your husband will never understand.

Is it, then, the same for men? Can we suppose that a man also has ways of his own and needs a room of his own? A place where he can retreat and be himself without the limits imposed by women – no need to keep it clean, orderly, and in style. A place where he can have boxes of tools, and canisters with little screws, throw greasy towels, walk around in his underwear, and empty beer bottles. To meet with male friends and talk about….tools. A place where putting up a pegboard is the latest and greatest addition to his space. A place to be himself in all of his messy, scattered, unfemininized glory uninfluenced by the female-domestic-establishment.

Like Woolf suggested, without a room of one’s own, the woman is destined to die with creative genius and words unexpressed. So, is it the same with men? If Chris didn’t have his basement would he be filled with latent energy for putting things together, taking things apart, throwing things on the floor?

More importantly, where instead would that energy go?

Wait, I know the answer. In fact, I saw it the other day. On Saturday, my urge to clean house came rushing back to me and I cleaned house at a maniac pace. A few hours later, there was one task left and I was all out of cleaning fury. So I asked Chris - please vacuum the stairs. On Tuesday, when it still wasn’t done, I made a deal. “No coffee until you vacuum the stairs.” What astounds me the most is that I finally have a husband that responds to caffeinated bribery - so I am taking full advantage of it. What astounds me further is that he accepted the deal. It was not even 7 am and the vacuum was whirring on the stairs. This is matrimonious glory, this is a husband with a halo around his head, this is….too good to be true.

30 seconds later, the vacuum had already stopped.

I came down a few minutes later to find the vacuum in pieces on the counter. Here we go again. Remember the Nike Triax last year? In pieces. And both garage door openers? Currently in pieces atop a bookshelf. Not surprisingly, the vacuum met a similar fate - the filter was in the sink, the top was on the washer, and the sad short little engine was sitting on the counter with chord between its legs.

Lesson learned – let the man keep his disassembly to the basement, with his own things in his own space rather than putting my equipment out of service for another few days and leaving it laying around my space.


And so it’s best to let the man have his own space to disassemble and dishevel his own things, on his own time schedule without interfering with mine. I’d like to think that men need their own place to become better problem solvers, better engineers, better builders in this process. Not that a woman can’t do this work, but be honest that most men excel at fields like this. Think about all of the men you know – how many are engineers? Now think about the women – how many are engineers? Exactly.

Even the ones that aren’t engineers are oddly fascinated by putting things together, figuring out how things work, taking things apart and throwing them around. Just this past weekend, swim team Dave came to our house to learn how to put his bike together. It completely baffles me why someone would desire to spend a Sunday afternoon learning how to take apart and then put back together their bike. But when I saw him and Chris standing in the laundry room washing bike parts and chatting about derailleurs like two school girls about boys, I knew they were both in a safe, happy place.

At one point, Dave looked at me and said “sorry for bringing my dirty bike parts up into your clean house.”

It was a nice comment, but it was also interesting proof that all men need time to take things apart – and actually enjoy this – and that all men sense a clear distinction between the basement (his space) and the rest of the house (my space). They seem to realize there are boundaries, there are lines drawn in houses that separate man from woman, his room from hers.

Perhaps men need this type of place where they can completely deconstruct everything to figure out how to put it back together again. And perhaps with all of the pieces laying on the floor they can see patterns and possibilities for how to put it back together in a better, more efficient way. Maybe this deconstructed, trinket-strewn basement is good for us all. For so long our society worried about women having their own space, their own needs met that I think we forget to remember what was important all along – that everyone needs their own space.

Now, I won’t leave a voicemail for my mom explaining this to her. After all, these days she’s just sharing her space with a 14 year old spotted pooch by the name of Cookie. Who also happens to be a girl. But I do think it’s important to remind myself, and other women, that if the man has taken over a space and it’s a far cry from what you’d do with your own space – let him be. Let him have his safe place. And stay out.

Tonight I’ll probably find Chris in the basement, in a mess of wires and wheels but I know he’s happy down there. It’s his safe place, it’s his own space. The problems he solves down there are probably much more important than they appear and who knows, maybe in all of that mess he’ll see patterns for building something to revolutionize the cycling world.

And not that he would, but if he craps in his safe personal place, in that proverbial dog crate, I will go down there and I will pull him out. No exceptions.

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