You are laughing-- a baritone staccato-- outside on the porch. The beer bottles have begun toppling over the ledge into the grass below, to be discovered the next morning in the dew like eastereggs. The cadence of your storytelling rises and falls, and you jostle and jockey for center stage-- interrupting and verbally shoving others out of the way. To us inside the meaning is lost, but the ruckus remains. One of you begins slamming something again and again-- the door? The sound is nearly drowned in the answering laughter. It sounds loud out there. Competitive. I've only met one of you before; the rest of you are strangers. I meet all of you eventually tonight, except one of you-- the guy who passes out on the couch. One of you, one of the two single guys, apologizes to me for using foul language in front of my kids. I wave away his apology-- I tell him my kids are so hung up on "stupid" and "shut up" being the very worst words in the world that they miss most of the rest. He continues to curse.
You all come inside occasionally to fish fresh beer out of the coolers. You all come inside eventually when the smell of coconut rice and cilantro chicken wafts out of the screen windows. You end the night with a rowdy poker game.
Dear Women At That Party,
You are in the kitchen, drinking water and juice. You are more or less strangers to each other, so your conversation skims politely across the surface details of your lives- how long have you lived here? Is this your first time here? How do you two know each other? As you chat, you butterfly the chicken, complaining about the smell to your pregnant sensibilities. You squeeze lime juice and chop garlic and cilantro into a marinade. You improvise opening a can of coconut milk without a can opener. A husband comes in-- you've only just been married this year-- and you say, "oh honey, do you have your knife or something that could help with this can? The flow is too slow?" He snatches it out of your hands and scoffs, "what the hell is this? Look, you should have just asked me to begin with." You giggle, without taking your eyes from his face. He holds the can in one hand, takes an enormous serrated bread knife from the drawer, points it at the lid, and slams it down. The women around the countertop startle. I attempt a joke-- "I hope he's not a guitar player?" You, the wife, beam at me, "oh yes! He is! He loves to play--" he cuts you off. "Can that be -- enough-- from the peanut gallery? That's just not really helping--" and slams the knife down again. "Oh, honey that's fine--" "no!" He hands you the can and the milk pours out easily. You beam at him and thank him. He shouts on his way out. "See I wasn't so wasted as you thought! hah! Next time just f$$$ing ask me to do it first."
After he leaves the conversation has lost the easy forward motion it had. You, the women, carry on chopping without much more chat. You make the rice and the salad and the chicken, and lay out stacks of plates. The men come in when it smells appetizing and they eat. They are complimentary about the food. All of the women refuse to take credit.
One man loads a plate up for the guy who is about to pass out-- still outside on the porch. The coconut milk wife says, "Oh, that's nice. He's a good man." You, his pregnant wife, say, "hah, I made him that way. He used to be a wild child. Well, so was I. But now I just have to tell him-- honey, you've had enough. And he's done drinking." You are pleased with your good work. When your husband sits down by you to eat his food, you call him, "good boy."
You, coconut milk, look me right in the face and say, "do they do that? Do they get better?"
And here is the moment that has hooked me-- sunk a spur into my brain enough to force me to write.
I shake my head at you-- "No."
Pregnant wife tuts.
I persist. "They become more themselves. Their real selves shine through." That's what all people do-- we become less and more tolerant, less and more hopeful.
So men and women at the party... I need to tell you some things.
Dear men: the women are inside making the food and cleaning up while you are outside drinking and playing horseshoes. The women are not drinking. They are being the grownups. They are making the food because they realize that if they don't, nobody will. They are not drinking because they realize that SOMEBODY has to have their wits about them. The women are not doing this because it is fun for them, or because they are innately good at it-- two of you men are in the food business!-- they are doing it because you are not, and somebody has to, and because they are trying to be nice.
You men probably think of yourselves as nice guys. Letting other people tend to your needs is not nice. If you see a group of women doing all of the work for you, you are not being nice, you are being an infant.
Men, step up. Engage in your own self-care. Notice if you are exploiting other people's kindness. Especially notice if you are exploiting the willingness of women to be nice. There are times when people-- women and men-- DO want to cook, or clean. Don't assume that right now is one of those times; check in. Don't wait to be asked, don't wait to be told what to do. See what needs to be done and then do it. Bring everyone at the party together. Half of the party doing all the work is not a fun party. That is the men having a party with women staff.
Dear men at that party. Your wives and fiancés are still hopeful about you. They are being nice to you and serving you because they still like you, and this is their way of showing that they care about you and want you to be happy. It may take a long time-- even years-- for that goodwill to wear down but eventually-- she will hear that condescension in your tone and realize that you were never grateful for her work-- you felt entitled to it. You never valued her the way she prioritized you.
Men, be nice.
Dear women at that party,
You cannot NICE people into appreciating you. You may think you are showing them how you would like to be treated. You may think, I really appreciate it when someone makes me food, therefore I am going to make food for my man, and he will be grateful. For some people, the nicer you are to them, the more forgiving and gentle and accommodating, the more they feel entitled to your niceness. They feel they are owed your kindness. They feel they are owed your work.
Women at that party, stop teaching your men that they can play while others work for them. Stop teaching them that if they don't take care of their needs, somebody else will.
Do not hold out hope that someday he will wake up and realize that all of those washed dishes, all of those homemade meals, all of those tidied counters were actually acts of your generosity. He will not. Unless you tell him. Tell him: I'm making you this meal even though I am tired and it is complicated and I've never tried this recipe before because I love you and I want you to feel good.
Men, I am disappointed that my daughters saw you and asked me why the men were acting like little boys. Women, I am disappointed that my daughters saw you doing all of the work without any appreciation. We know better than this. We believe that women can be brain surgeons and principals and bus drivers and men and be stay at home dads and home ec teachers and ballet dancers. We know that masculinity and femininity are different from gender. We accept there can be all kinds of men and all kinds of women, and that we can redefine what is "womanly" or "manly" by doing. I am a woman and I wrestle rabid bears, therefore wrestling rabid bears is womanly. I am a man and I paint my poodles' toenails, therefore poodle pedis are manly.
Men and women at that party, and at many many other parties I've been to, cross those lines. Don't just accept that women should hang out together in the kitchen and men should hang out together on the porch. Hang out together in front of the fire-- share the work, share the fun.