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Men: The original shovel-ready project

Craig Wilson, festooned in a winter-defiant red jacket, battles snow with his shovel.
Craig Wilson, festooned in a winter-defiant red jacket, battles snow with his shovel. (Kathleen Parker/The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Much time and many volumes have been devoted to Freud's famous question -- What do women want? -- with little commensurate attention to the male counterpart.

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What do men want?

The simple answer is well-known, but a more nuanced answer has presented itself the past several days during Washington's "Snowmageddon."

Shovels. Men want shovels, the bigger the better.

No sooner had the first flakes begun falling in this crippling winter smackdown than the attendant quiet was interrupted by the scrape of metal against brick.

There was Craig, festooned in a winter-defiant red jacket, battling snow with his Great Big Snow Shovel. Barely a doughnut's dusting had settled on the sidewalk, but one can never get started too soon in the battle against accumulations to come.

Lest I be accused of sexist stereotyping, let me tweak the record to reflect that many women were also out clearing sidewalks and unearthing cars no longer identifiable as such. But most women do these things because they must, while men apparently can't wait to do them.

Maybe not so much Wednesday as a few days ago. As I write this, we're bracing for up to 20 more inches on top of two feet in much of the Washington area. The novelty is cooling off. But there is a reason "the best snow shovel on the planet!" is called simply: "Manplow." I think I can safely assert that no woman has ever suffered shovel envy.

Since the blizzard began, the shovel has become not just a tool of necessity but a symbol of purpose and meaning, about whose absence the usual existential lament is more acute in a city that lives so much in its head.

This is the axis of wonkery, after all, where men (and women) spend most of their waking hours in a seated position, staring at a computer screen or talking by phone. Interruptions to these mostly mental rigors involve other seated endeavors, such as the power breakfast and lunch, or the ever-popular drinks-and-dinner duet. Whatever ambulation is required in between is hardly enough to satisfy the muscular memories of our tranquilized DNA.

Oh, we "work out." Gym memberships are as common as Metro cards, and personal trainers nearly outnumber cab drivers. Washington has a disproportionate number of triathletes, which is testament both to Washingtonians' principal source of animation -- stress -- and to the city's miles of friendly running and biking paths.

But purpose-driven exercise is of a different order than shoveling snow. One is a To-Do item on the calendar of obsessive-compulsives; the other is a taunt from Nature, a call to survival to bestir all those little lizard brains in repose. Man is never happier than when he is called to action, in other words. That is to say, when he is needed.

Much of today's cultural angst can be plotted around that simple observation. We've gone to great strides to prove how unnecessary men are. Maureen Dowd even wrote a book about it, "Are Men Necessary?" to which, just incidentally, I responded with another title, "Save the Males."

Women can't be blamed for wanting to be independent and self-sufficient, but smart ones have done so without diminishing the males whose shoulders they might prefer on imperfect days. Add to the cultural shifts our recent economic woes, which have left more men than women without jobs, and men are all the more riveted by opportunities to be useful.

Craig, though a gainfully employed USA Today columnist, further volunteered to shake the snow from garden trees bent double from the weight of crushing snow. My son, not to be outdone, grabbed a small garden trowel and hacked at the ice on my lethally steep steps. Neither male is seeking feminine favor; that should go without saying in the case of my offspring. As for Craig, he's been happy the past 25 years with Jack, who, though he pleads a bad back, cooks a mean stroganoff, from which I have benefited twice since the snows began.

Doubtless, such displays of manliness -- which in my view include feeding the hungry -- are, like the weather, passing divertissements. And these jottings are but a wee contribution to the annals of gender study. But if one should ever stop pondering the malaise of modern woman long enough to consider what men might want, the answer is obvious to any except, perhaps, the U.S. Congress.

Give a man a job, and he'll clear a path to your door.

kathleenparker@washpost.com



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