'That's mighty female of you," I've taken to saying jestingly to my wife, April, when she does one of those really nice things that women are especially wont to do and that men rarely even think of.
It's a jest that she's only mildly amused by, but of which I, in my mischievous way, seem not to tire. For my wife, the humor is mitigated by her detesting the uses to which this locution has historically been put. And I share her loathing of those old expressions, which have implied that virtue was somehow the monopoly of people of a certain skin color or a certain religious persuasion. But I have a penchant for humor of a dark kind and, since I'm not female, I feel entitled to play with this locution in this particular way.
Now, as a man, I'm as tired as the next guy of the male-bashing introduced into our culture by one kind of feminist. The notion that women are somehow superior beings seems to me as offensive as the male chauvinist counterpart that so long held sway in our culture; this put-down of men seems, in fact, the reactive offspring of that traditional devaluation of women.
It's like that expression, "What goes around, comes around." The culture never rights itself, it seems, but swings from one folly to its opposite. And in this case, the opposite is a belittling of things masculine, a disregard of the important virtues that men have brought - and continue to bring - to the human community.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the embodiment of certain fine human qualities, there are some divisions of labor between the sexes that leave men in a rather dim light. Let me illustrate this by relating a story we heard recently about the wedding of two of our acquaintances.
Among the attendees at this wedding were the bride's two brothers and her mother. The mother was quite elderly, and was frail to the extent that she needed frequent attention and assistance. As the bride had a role to play that was, one might say, rather central to the occasion, one might reasonably assume that the brothers would quite naturally take on the job of attending to their mother. But no. The brothers sat while the bride shuttled back and forth between her dual roles of star of the wedding and caretaker for her mother.
That's an extreme example. But it points in the direction of some more widespread and, arguably, not entirely appropriate discrepancies in the attention paid by the two sexes to some basic human needs. The story of that wedding aside, it is widely noted that, in American families, when it comes to the burden of caring for an elderly parent, the daughters - and even the daughters-in-law - are far more likely than the sons to step up to the task.
Of course, there's history behind all of this. Traditionally women have served in the role of caretakers, taking care of people while men went about the no-less-important tasks of taking care of business, from the deadly business of protecting the community against external enemies to the more quotidian business of keeping the larger productive and governing systems of their world functioning well. (And no doubt, stories - as extreme and ludicrous in their way as that of the brothers leaving the caretaking job to their sister the bride - could be told to exemplify women's failure to practice some traditionally "manly virtues.")
But even so, sometimes I'm embarrassed by my gender's falling down on some of the jobs that involve tending to the ties that bind us together. Did you know that 85 percent of the Christmas cards sent are bought and inscribed by women? After a visit, who writes the thank yous? And in general, who maintains the connections among families that are friends separated by geography? Yup, it's mighty female of them. Stereotypes have their limits. They have their bases, too.
But more pleasant than focusing on the embarrassment I feel about the socially slovenly ways of many of my brethren is simply to get into appreciating the nice things that the women do to care for the connections among us.
My wife, for example, makes sure that our mailman and the guy who drives the bus to take our child to school both get a nice plate of homemade Christmas cookies. Not that they need the calories, mind you, but the nurturing gesture seems to cement some good feeling between them and us. Such little things seem to purchase surprisingly enduring glows that really do make a difference in the way everyday life feels.
AND so, to express my appreciation of April at those junctures when she shows that exemplary womanly thoughtfulness - when she keeps track of whose birthday it is today (from among a couple hundred people), when she remembers to call the hospital to see how someone is, when she makes sure before we leave to be someone's houseguest that we'll have a nicely wrapped jar of our homemade applebutter to present them - I'll say to her, partly in jest and partly in genuine admiration, "That's mighty female of you."
* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a freelance writer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. More of his ideas can be found at www.worldwide-interada.com/schmookler/