Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Man Cave of One's Own

You know, it’s not easy being a dad. You’ve heard all the reasons why a million times so I won’t go into them, but it’s not. There’s money and discipline and education and long hours and keeping your little bear cub safe and fed and thriving and growing, all with them more or less fighting you every inch of the way. If there’s ever an opportunity for them to make things easy on you, you can rest assured they won’t, and they’re so busy growing up that they neither notice nor care if dad is tired, tense, frazzled, and aging alarmingly fast. Maybe I’m just talking about myself here. In any case, at the end of the day I have to say I like being a father. There are many, many redeeming aspects of it that make the effort worthwhile. Older guys no longer give me a hard time because I’m part of their club now, and I have a little buddy to play swordfighting with! How sweet is that? I own more LEGOs now than all of the collections of my friends put together when I was a kid and I regularly get to watch cartoons with zero intellectual guilt. Beyond even the classic, oft-retreaded emotionally enriching and maturing value of parenthood, there is plenty of vindicating catharsis involved.

But there is one thing I still don’t have. There’s one thing that eludes me and makes me feel like fatherhood will forever be stones in my shoes and sand in my underpants. The thing my life is missing is a Man cave.

Some of my friends have them, and I know this because I see their wives bragging online about the homes they’ve bought and they describe the house’s layout. I look for words like “rec room” or “finished basement” or “attached garage” and I can barely restrain myself from a fist-pump in solidarity with the lucky husband who just scored himself a genuine Man cave. Rec room, my ass, I think. You just don’t want your friends to know your husband owns anything besides 400 thread count sheets, Waterford crystal, and an XXL Baby Bjorn. “Rec room” conjures images of a clean, bright modernistic space with a treadmill or comfy, tasteful sectional sofa with end tables. I’d bet money that those rooms instead contain golf bags, comic books, board games, vinyl record collections, high-end stereos and huge TVs, concert posters, guns and hunting/fishing gear, and sci-fi memorabilia. They say “rec room” because they’re mortified that their friends might discover an actual man lived there.

I know, I know, how contrite, right? How utterly typical of the whipped, 21st Century metrosexual dude. That American culture has fallen on times that find men (with a lower case “m”) scrambling to wall off one little cubby-sized warren of space in his entire dwelling in which to display, enjoy, or even just store all of the things he owns. The implications are usually sneered at by women, who will be the first to tell you that (1) men’s cherished belongings are tacky, trivial, esoteric wastes of space, time and money and (2) are tolerated only inasmuch as they are stored far from sight where they don’t need to be seen, understood, validated, or heaven forbid appreciated.

And yet suggest for an instant that the woman in a relationship live for any length of time immersed in the trappings of masculine decorative sensibility, with perhaps only a single room in the house in which to cram all of their delicate, pointless furniture that can’t be properly sat on or their knick-knacks that do nothing but collect dust and break if you look at them sideways, and you’ll find yourself (at best) on the other end of a stern, huffy argument about your maturity and (at worst) staring at the door that just slammed as she walked out on your selfish, inconsiderate ass. Because one thing’s certain when it comes to the nuts and bolts of homecraft: selfishness and inconsiderate behavior is a one-way street, guys. In the way that most men feel like they were born to be lions, kings of whatever they could conquer, I firmly believe that most women feel that they were born to make homes. I’m not suggesting women were born to be homemakers in the classic sense of the word, in the “chained to the stove” sense. I mean it is in their DNA to be able to effectively organize and maintain a living space that is accommodating to them. I do not say this as a put-down. I do not have any empirical proof of this either, just anecdotal evidence. Their attitude toward it could not even properly be called entitlement, because that would suggest they did not have the utter, inborn right to craft our home and theirs in their own image. Women have no interest in even debating our right to have equal say in the decoration or adornment of our living space. They’ve earned it, as far as they’re concerned. It’s not selfishness or being inconsiderate if it’s your birthright, and a birthright to them it most certainly is.

So without making judgments about how other men live their lives, and without resorting to the kinds of polar-thinking that would lead us to the eventualities I just described, I wanted to take this Thursday’s blog slot to declare that I want a fucking Man cave. Yes, I realize as a rational, thinking man, that there are plenty of men who do not have Man caves at all. I also understand that there are an approximately equal number of men whose entire dwelling could be considered a large and elaborate Man cave. I pity the former and I envy the latter, but my heart’s modest desire is to be part of the middle of that bell curve. I can understand that the economics and practical systems of modern life don’t easily afford the sort of Hugh Hefner-esque man-centric luxury living that makes me practically drool just thinking about, but I also firmly believe that to live in a home in which virtually no space at all is devoted to you (also read: masculinity) is an unhealthy hardship beyond tolerance.

And I’m not quite at that point. I’m not quite a cipher from a dystopian novel where everything I own is communal and privacy and selfhood has ceased to exist. But for all of you lucky bastards out there with a basement or a garage or a second bedroom which you have control over, bemoaning your bachelor pad days, I want to tell you that life does get considerably worse from where you are.

I live in a 900 square foot condo. Small, even by urban standards, for raising a child in. We have a basement storage area that is unfinished and communal with locking wooden storage enclosures, and a single parking spot in a communal parking lot. We have two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a combination living room/dining room that’s really just one large room, a single bathroom, and a front sun room that is enclosed but not heated. The sun-room is windows on all four walls ceiling to floor. Of this space, the portions that belong to me are as follows:

I share half of a dresser with my wife, and I have a small free-standing armoire that belongs just to me to store my clothes and guitars in. I share roughly half of one bookshelf in the sun-room. I share the basement storage unit with Beth, in which is a large locking plastic tough-bin to store a variety of relics from my youth, alongside four or five plastic Tupperware bins full of books, DVD’s, video games, and CD’s that are kept in there as well. I have my laptop bag, and I have my car. And that’s it.

The living room and dining room are communal, which is parent-ese for “belongs to the hordes of hundreds of small plastic action figures and toys that won’t fit in his bedroom.” I did manage to buy a leather chair and ottoman for the living room when we replaced the couch, but any space where you have to shovel the Duplo blocks and stuffed animals and empty sippy cups off of in order to sit down cannot, in my book, be properly called mine. There is some debate in our house about whom the sun-room “belongs” to. Originally, it was going to be the new “office” that Beth and I would share when John was born and we moved our “office” out of the second bedroom. However, the sun-room is too small to comfortably fit two desks into, so we’ve downsized our individual footprints into one shared desk with a shared desktop computer on it.

When John was small, this room was the only room off-limits to him because it had a door that could be closed to keep wandering little hands away from the cables and power outlets necessary for computer equipment. But now his house-devouring manifest destiny has started to creep into it as well. The bottom shelf has his books on it and there are toys stored along one wall by the outside windows to get them out from underfoot in the living room. My wife uses the room for her work and school tasks and it’s the only computer she has access to in our house so whenever she needs one she’s in that space. Still, the case could be made that the sun-room is “my” room, by virtue of the fact that it’s far enough away from the television that John doesn’t generally like to play in there and that it’s my default place to go park myself because there usually aren’t toys or piles of laundry in the chair or on the desktop itself. Still, inasmuch as many of my belongings are stored in and on the desk itself and I keep it largely clean and free of clutter not directly belonging to me, neither the room nor the desk are really exclusively mine.

So my point behind saying all of this is that I’m not utterly without space for myself, but I lack any meaningful space to call mine. I’m 31 years old, smack dab in the middle of a lengthy, successful medical career. I own a dwelling in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the Chicago area, with the taxes and inflated costs of living scars to prove it, and I can claim perhaps all of 20-30 square feet of space in the whole world as my own.

Just to put that in perspective, an average prison cell is 6 by 8 feet, or 48 square feet total, and is shared by two prisoners, which puts each prisoner’s personal square footage at about 24 square feet. The difference is that the hypothetical prisoner we’re talking about has all twenty four of those square feet all in one place, whereas my personal square footage is spread out over slivers of four different rooms.

So even if you take the obvious hyperbole out of that, and ratchet down the faux-drama in my voice, that still leaves me on the bottom end of the bell curve, envying guys with a windowless utility shed full of the things I have to either throw away or make disappear into a dank dungeon-like storage area in watertight bins so all of my belongings don’t just rot out from under me.

There was a great scene that pretty much describes the way I feel in a movie called Juno a couple of years back. The film, if you haven’t seen it, involves a pregnant teen preparing to give her baby up to adoption to a thirty-something married couple. Their house is a beautiful two-story Victorian style home in a suburban neighborhood and the couple seems outwardly happy with it, but later in the film when the girl, Juno, is spending more time with the husband, he shows her a basement storage room full of all of his belongings and Juno quips “Wow, she gave you a whole room in your own house? Pretty short leash she’s keeping you on.” This room contains everything from stereo equipment to a music collection to posters, comic books, guitars, and other various memorabilia from his childhood. The message that the film’s writer, Diablo Cody, was trying to convey is very clear: this is what married men are reduced to. Not only do they not get to be the primary decider of how and with what a home is decorated, but they’re expected to be quiet and happy with packing their most treasured loot from youth into a hidden, uncomfortable space that, if they’re lucky, is basically a glorified closet. The husband later leaves the wife, admitting to himself in a predictable but oddly understandable twist that he is not ready to be a father, despite being 35 years old. I feel this guy’s pain. After all, if parenthood is the difficult exercise in self-annihilation that everyone agrees it is, and he’s already been relegated to a closet in his own home, then can you blame the guy for rethinking himself?

It’s the nuance of this scene that made this film work so well for me. It’s one of the most honest portrayals of modern marriage and family domestic life I’ve ever seen. And it’s uncomfortable and polarizing (women almost uniformly seethe at the attitude that the husband displays, citing a sort of epidemic of perpetual teenager-hood as the cause rather than the inherent unfairness of the husband’s living situation) precisely because it’s so honest. It also goes much further toward understanding of the dynamic than most similar stories do. Whereas it’s endlessly easy for women to be sarcastic and condescending toward masculinity, and virtually taboo for men to do the same thing to women, it’s sobering in the extreme to look at a problem like this for what it really is: a sharp and painful inequality. Most women born after 1950 have been taught their entire lives that inequality is a one-way street that forever dumps unfairness into their laps, and really for the last two decades, even according to some of the more vocal feminist thinkers, this has not been true. Inequality is very much a two-way exchange, and in Juno, Diablo Cody made it clear that she understands this subtlety. The statement this scene makes about life is that nothing breeds resentment and disappointment faster than crushed individuality and radically unmet expectation, and that goes for men, too.

So let’s just say for the sake of argument that you’ve kept up with me through this whole explanation of why I want a Man cave and you understand and agree with the underlying social dynamic at play, and you agree that it’s reasonable to expect that I have at least some space in my own home that’s mine. Your very next question is likely to be: what exactly do you have that’s so fucking important that it needs its own room? I’ve seen the dusty old book collection and the box full of guitar parts, and the juvenile 80’s memorabilia, and your high school diploma and audio equipment I don’t recognize and the rolled up old posters from concerts you went to in college, but what’s so special about that crap?

Even after the purges necessitated by living in a miniscule condo for so long, and the guilty episodes where I let my wife talk me into throwing away things I bitterly regret throwing away now, I still have managed to hold onto a pretty significant number of belongings that I just couldn’t bear to part with. Not a ridiculous, Hoarders sort of level of garbage, but quite a bit of cool, eclectic, esoteric stuff that I love dearly and just doesn’t mesh well with children or in a home decorated the way ours is. For example, I have a pretty great set of decorative samurai swords on a lacquered stand. For a number of years this was a mainstay of my home workspace because I liked the way they looked and they felt like something a guy like me should have in his office. I can understand perfectly that these needed to be packed safely away until my son is out of the house at the very least. The problem is that the same could be said of virtually every possession I own.

In the basement is my old stereo, including a 440 watt amplifier and a pair of heavy old-school three-phase stereo speakers with 12” woofer cones in a gorgeous pair of hand-made, closed-back, wooden speaker cabinets. They have tweed faces and they’re glorious, and not only are they currently collecting dust, they’re sitting on a pair of 4x4 wooden blocks to keep them far enough off the floor that the spring melt-off doesn’t damage them. Like draping the coffin of a beloved friend, they are covered with a drop-cloth made of an old, original Return of the Jedi blanket that I had when I was five and can’t bear to part with. I can understand that these speakers were a bit of a liability with a child running around given that they have wires to tangle with and high-voltage outputs on the back that you’d not want a child to get into. But really, I feel like them being in the basement has more to do with the fact that my wife hates them (perhaps “hates them” is the wrong choice of words when describing my belongings, “is willfully ignorant of the awesomeness of them” is more accurate) and that they were taking up valuable floor space that could otherwise be used for, you guessed it: more of John’s toys.

Once upon a time, I had at least two entire shelves of hardcover and paperback books in my office. These are now in plastic bins in my basement because we didn’t have room for them in the sun-room when we moved the office out there. Ok, fine, perfectly understandable. Yet, later on, when John got a bit older I started mentioning to my wife that we’d eventually get them back out and find some shelf space for them and I got stonewalled again. “Um… where would we put them?” she asked. Fair enough. “We could split them up or buy some new low bookshelf so they could fit under the windowsill on the inside of the sun-room.” “We can’t really afford that, and they probably wouldn’t fit very well” my wife retorted. Ok, I thought. “Well, if we were to get a house someday, I’d love to have some space for them.” “For what, those dusty old paperbacks? All they are is paperbacks. And you know I’m allergic to dust.”

Can you see where this is going? The focus went from it being a practical concern forcing a temporary change that eventually became a permanent, irrevocable change due to factors completely different than what prompted it to begin with. This is the sort of way that my wife’s inborn homecraft instinct kicked in and systematically kicked me out of my own house. Pretty sly, no? It didn’t happen all at once, that would have felt like an all-out assault, but true love and oppression are both subtle. I have to give her credit, she stuck with it for almost ten years now and it has undeniably paid off.

The same thing happened to a number of framed photographs I had, my CD and DVD collection, my guitars… Some of my clothing has simply disappeared or I’ve discovered it later torn up in the rag pile and used as cleaning cloths. If you want to have an utterly emasculating experience sometime, let your wife nag you into voluntarily throwing away something you like simply because if you don’t you know the nagging will never end. It started to become sort of a protective measure of mine to quietly remove something I didn’t want summarily thrown away and put it in a bin in the basement where it remained innocuous enough to escape her. After a while I found myself grateful that I had any possessions at all that were “nice” enough to be included in the main living area of our house. And by “main living area” I mean, “not in bins in the unfinished, unheated basement”.

So here I am four years after the D-Day invasion of my son, who is admittedly a very cool kid and even thank God likes most of the things I like, and I’m feeling like I’m almost not even an owner of the place where I sleep every night. We’re getting ready to refinance our mortgage and no one is more surprised to see my name on the title than me. Wait a minute, I thought, that? That isn’t my house. That’s Beth and John’s house and I’m just visiting. If I picked up everything I owned in my house that wasn’t communal property or Beth’s and moved it onto the lawn, the interior of the house would look almost unchanged save for a few empty shelves and drawers. If Beth did the same thing, the house would look completely abandoned except for a few pieces of mutually-purchased furniture and the television.

All right, all right, now I’m just whining. I don’t want to be that douchebag from Juno who left his wife because he couldn’t manage to plant the flag of masculinity in his own home. That would seem like a humiliating defeat. Plus, my wife is awesome! She’s pretty and highly intelligent and sexy and she takes terrific care of my son. She knows quality things when she sees them, she has even better taste in music and movies than I do, and she largely puts up with my irritating habits like spending two hours writing a blog post. But neither do I want to go into the basement with a flashlight and a broom to brush cobwebs away every time I want to retrieve a mothballed book or see some inconsequential object that I love. I didn’t sign up to be an 18-year extended guest in my own home, I signed up to be a Dad, with a capital D, and Dads have Stuff with a capital S. Time to put my money where my domestic sociopolitics are. You’ve stuck with me so far through the what, when, why, and how, but now I want to ask you to take one more step with me. This is the first step toward something greater. In the same way I committed myself to this little blog and rededicated a small portion of my life toward getting it done and not just thinking about it anymore, I want to make a second commitment to myself: I want to keep the lovely home I have with my little tribe, but today is the day that I start to rededicate a small portion of it to myself.

Today, I begin my quest for a Man cave.

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