The key to a happy marriage is knowing your place.
My wife and I have certain pacts and treaties that make our relationship work. For instance, she rakes the leaves and I clean the house. She helps the kids with their math homework, and I'm in charge of social studies and language arts. She loves room-temperature watermelon (yuck), and I like pan-fried Spam (the mere thought of which makes her gag).
In math we'd be reciprocals; in philosophy the yin and the yang. It works for us. These little deals we have are like the balancing poles we both use to negotiate the high-wire act of modern family life.
Early on in our relationship we discovered that I should stay away from the laundry and she shouldn't touch the dishes. I would mix colors and whites in the wash, which made her go bonkers. Meanwhile, she would always follow behind me and rearrange the cereal bowls symmetrically in the dishwasher, which made me crazy.
One day, I fumed, "From now on, how about I do the dishes and you do the laundry? Deal?"
"Deal," she said.
We shook hands and that was that. In 17 years of marriage we have never renegotiated our Laundry/Dishes Compact.
Earlier this fall, I tried to surprise her by disposing of the leaves in the front yard. I got out my push mower, bagged the leaf mulch and made a big old pile of ground-up leaves near the street.
"What are you doing?" she said, walking up after the job was nearly done.
"I'm doing your leaves," I said. "I wanted to surprise you."
"Thanks, but why are you making a pile?" she said. "We'll just have to pay someone to pick it up."
"Fine. I'm done with this," I said, stomping off. "You finish the leaves any way you want."
Actually, I was the one who breached the contract here. It should have been clear to me when she asked for an industrial-strength leaf blower for her birthday one year -- one that can uproot saplings and scatter cinderblocks as if they were made of Styrofoam -- that my help with the leaves was no longer needed.
I immediately went inside to clean house, my domain.
My wife, bless her heart, grew up on a working farm and is unbothered by household clutter. She's more into projects. Her idea of cleaning a room is painting it. Meanwhile, backpacks, first-grade art projects, lunch boxes and junk mail pile up on the kitchen table until it all avalanches onto the kitchen floor.
Now, we also have a small dog, who scatters his chew toys across every square inch of our living space and buries rawhides in the couch cushions. We have the only poodle mix in America with doomsday prepper tendencies.
As a consequence, I have become a human clutter-buster. I don't mind the job; actually, I like the feeling of restoring order to the chaos. But it does make me the prime suspect when anyone in the family loses something -- from a toothbrush to a passport.
"Daddy, where's my (fill in the blank: sunglasses, math homework, nail clippers, car keys, Mountain Dew bottle, half a doughnut, pet seahorse)" is all I ever hear.
On Saturday mornings, I actually get the house cleaned and sit down -- exhausted -- to watch my car shows on cable TV. This feeling of calm and order lasts about five minutes.
Then the dog begins replenishing his Armageddon stash. My older son walks across the carpet in muddy soccer cleats. My younger son dumps a mountain of Legos on the family room floor. And my wife announces, "Baby, I'm going outside to work in the yard."
I give up. Daddy's work is never done.
I guess there's no use hoping for a uncluttered nest until the chicks fly away. And something tells me that, even then, staring at a clean-but-empty house day after day will soon lose its charm.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...