A woman friend of mine wondered out loud one day, "What the heck do men see when they stand around looking into holes, anyway?" She meant those big construction pits you see all over the place, now that it's high summer and prime time for digging.
I didn't have a ready answer, but I certainly know what she's talking about. It's just so much fun standing there, staring into the pit. You get into a kind of existential daze, taking in all that apparently slow-mo activity as the big earthmovers dip to and fro like graceful dinosaurs and men the size of ants stroll around or gather in little groups to consult.
It's so cool!
It's just like when I was a kid, I had this heavy-duty orange road grader -- the kind with authentic, big-tread tires -- and a yellow dump truck that you could put a lot of dirt in and then when you pulled the lever, the dirt dropped out of the belly of the truck. It was really neat.
When you get right down to it, I'm not really sure I can exactly, uh, verbalize why men enjoy all this sort of thing -- because, after all, gender studies show that men tend to be more, uh, spatial in their brain orientation, while women tend to be more verbal.
In his 1994 book, "Eve's Rib: Searching for the Biological Roots of Sex Differences," Robert Pool notes that a man's brain weighs 100 grams more than a woman's, adjusted for body weight. "One possibility suggested by several scientists," he writes, "is that the extra ounces . . . may be devoted to spatial ability -- the one major talent that men seem to excel in."
Not everyone agrees. Pool writes that after hearing a radio report that men's brains are larger, one woman called in and said, "You know how men have one thing on their minds from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep? The extra brain cells are there so they can think about sex all the time."
To learn more, I went out to that big construction site in Bethesda where they've got a city block dug down five stories deep at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway. Right at the corner, there's one of those plywood frame-ups with cutouts so you can watch what's going on.
"My God, it's a deep hole, isn't it?" marveled a 37-year-old lawyer. "You look and say, `Gee, I could be out there doing that.' " Below, big-clawed yellow Cats were scooping up masses of dirt and filling dump trucks as they pulled up one after another.
"I just enjoy it; I always have," said Don McVearry, 55, a bank consultant. "It's amazing, the timing and coordination they have to keep it all running. It's neat."
"When I was a kid, in my back yard, I did the same thing on a different scale," said Gary Israel, a commercial real-estate developer. "Digging holes, moving stones, moving sticks around."
One old gent -- "Bob" was all the name he'd give -- told me he'd been an electrical engineer and worked at plenty of sites like this. He explained how they reinforced the sides as they deepened the hole so that Wisconsin Avenue didn't collapse into it.
Suddenly, workers exploded dynamite to loosen up some hard soil. It was exciting. They stopped traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway, then set off a rapid series of 80 tiny pops that lifted up a whole field of dirt and kind of piled it in toward the center.
It sounded like Scotch tape being ripped off a box, and a satisfying cloud of dust drifted up. For some reason, Bob started reminiscing about his days on a destroyer in World War II. I was barely listening as he rambled on, but this caught my attention:
Kamikazes were attacking. "We were off the coast of Japan, all lined up for the invasion. I saw the atom bomb go off. We saw the mushroom cloud. All of a sudden the captain came over the loudspeaker and said, `That was an atomic bomb, the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.' "
Bob and I just stood there, silently gazing into the pit.
After I'd hung around the construction site for a while, I began to realize that some women were also stopping to look, and the reasons for their interest didn't seem much different from the men's.
"I'm wondering how that Cat scooping the dirt up on that mound is going to get down," observed Rebecca Bilovecky, 23, who said she's in real estate. She was pointing to a big machine that seemed to be scooping the very ground out from under itself. I'd been wondering the same thing.
It turned out that Bilovecky is partial to the dynamite explosions, too. "It's real neat, because all the dirt goes flying."
"I love it," said another woman who'd paused to study the pit, Deborah Ware, a secretary. "I don't know why I find it so interesting. These construction workers are extremely talented. I'm in awe of them."
The next day, I phoned Bethesda psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, a specialist in child development and author of "The Growth of the Mind" (Addison-Wesley, 1997). He said a lot, the bottom line being that though there are differences between men and women the nature of which are often hotly debated, many of the differences "do not hold for any individual person.
"A given woman may be more interested in the spatial drama, and a given man more interested in the human drama. . . . More and more women are becoming engineers. There are brilliant women in fields that require spatial thinking."
His wife, Nancy, got on the line. I asked her about women and men and pits. "My immediate reaction," she said, "is I like to look in them, too. Across from where I work is a very large construction pit . . . "
She was off and running, about the "bravery" of the workers, the "peacefulness" of the scene. "It's like watching a little village. They know what they're doing, they're going about their appointed tasks, working together. There's a sense of purpose, a plan and a product. That's what I see when I look down there." She went on and on, brilliantly, eloquently, until finally I couldn't help but think:
Me, too -- that's exactly right! What she said!