Admire him for his masculine characteristics," I read. "His deep voice, his heavy walk, his large hands." I began to snicker.
"What is it?" my husband asked. Mark and I were sitting at a picnic table in a mostly abandoned park, engrossed in our books while our two sons were heaving baseballs against the side of a cinder-block building and running to catch the ricochet.
I laughed. "It's this book. Can you believe this? It says to admire your husband for his manly characteristics." I laughed again. "Isn't that funny?"
Mark was quiet for a moment. "What's so funny about that?" he asked.
My eyes got wide. "You mean it? You mean you'd like it, if I commented on your...." I looked at the book for direction, "on your manly hands?"
He shrugged. "Yeah. It's kind of nice." He went back to his murder mystery as I sat, mouth open, staring through my sons but not at them. This man I have been married to for 14 years, who loves pillow fights and pinball and hurling himself into the swimming pool in the biggest, hugest cannonballs, would like to have his hands admired?
I shook my head in disbelief.
The book I was reading, with its bright pink cover, was about how to be a fascinating woman. It was written 30 years ago and, according to the introduction, originated even earlier than that, as it was based on pamphlets published in the 1920s.
I'm not sure just what I hoped to glean from advice that originated back when bobbing one's hair was the height of indecency (the era when women of marriageable age were advised to learn to play the piano to increase their chances of snagging a good man.)
But here I was, reading with the same air of anticipation I might feel at getting hold of one of Grandma's diaries. I smoothed the crinkly pages that smelled of a damp garage and went on.
The book transported me back to an age when the word "housewife" was used without apology; when nurturing one's family was judged not as a waste of one's abilities but rather their highest fulfillment; when pampering one's husband was seen as a lofty goal.
It was a far cry from the "I am Woman" chorus of the culture in which I grew up.
Over the next few days the book gave me a lot to think about. From what I gathered, the author believed women lose their femininity by striving to prove they can do whatever men do. Men want to be the breadwinners for their wives and children, the author said. They want to protect us; they feel less needed and, somehow, less masculine when women brandish their abilities and fend for themselves.
I kept testing these ideas, which seemed awfully quaint, on my husband. After all, if the hand-admiring thing still applied, how much still held for today's man?
One day, we were stacking firewood for next winter, lumbering up the hill of our property, carrying logs Mark had cut and split. (Quite a manly thing to do, I commented more than once, but I had already blown it by reading the excerpt in the park. He was on to me.) As I struggled up the hill balancing my measly couple of logs, I said, "I wonder if this wood-hauling stuff is making me lose my femininity?" He gave me a look that said, "Keep stacking."
In the evening, I tested another theory. "Do you think men really want to be the sole breadwinners? That they'd prefer their wives not go to work and just focus on the home?" We discussed the woman in Proverbs 31, who was depicted several thousand years ago in the Bible as the archetype of feminine virtue - as accomplished outside the home as within it. When she wasn't looking after her family's needs, she was busy buying real estate and making and selling linen garments.
Although we never came to a solid conclusion, we did agree that, as much as some men say they want the extra income, we've never met any who feel comfortable with a wife who out-earns them. Hmmm.
Later, as we sat by the fire, Mark said out of the blue, "You're a good wife."
I looked up from my book. "Why do you say that?"
"Because you make me feel like I'm important to you."
I marked my place with my bookmark - chapter, "Domestic Goddess" - and put the book aside. Maybe I'd read more later. It looked as if some serious admiring was about to take place, and I didn't want to miss a second.