golden hands

Konstantin Rotov: False Shock Worker at the Work Site (1932)
Konstantin Rotov: False Shock Worker at the Work Site (1932)

My wife was annoyed with me because I walked past the hammer that was laying on the kitchen counter three times. “I decided that I wouldn’t put it away,” she said, “because, you know, in most households it is the man who takes care of the tools.” With that my face tightened, like a cat about to wretch, and I mocked her in a high noxious voice, “It’s the man who takes care of the tools.”

“Why are you mocking me?” she demanded an answer, “It’s true. In most households it is the man who takes care of the tools. It is your hammer, isn’t it?” “It is my hammer.” “Yes, it is your hammer, so it is your responsibility, as man of the house, to put it away.” “Yes, I am the man of the house.”

And with that I dutifully deposited the hammer into the toolbox and was on my way.

I don’t think it’s the hammer that made her mad though. It’s the fact that we have to pay a handyman to paint our rooms and build our shelves. Her father is a builder who knows how to do these things, and she has respect for such men with “golden hands” as they are called in Estonia. Our friend Kerttu also goes on and on about her Latvian father who built the house she grew up in with his “golden hands,” and then there is Margit whose golden-handed grandfather built the house she lives in. Let’s not forget Kersti’s husband, whose hands are so golden that they “shine when he goes outside in the dark.”

And they sort of blush as they praise these golden men and don’t understand that Mr. Justin’s golden hands write books and columns and articles about complicated shit, and he doesn’t have time to paint the office door.

“So, you don’t have golden hands,” one Estonian woman consoled me. “You have a golden pen.”

But it’s not the same thing, not in this society at least. Here, physical labor is more revered. Maybe these are agrarian Lutheran ideals that have survived into the 21st century. Or maybe the Estonians still have a bit of that Stalinist Stakhanov “shock worker” mindset lingering in their collective unconsciousness. But when I finish an article, my wife usually does nothing. Creative writing receives more praise, because she’s also a writer. But when I do some physical work around the house she leaps into my arms and wraps her thighs around my waist and kisses me with a hot fever like a French teenager rescued from Nazi henchmen by Le Resistance, “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. You are a good man. You are so kind. Have I told you how much I love you?” Her cheeks grow as rosy as red delicious apples. There are tears in the corners of her eyes. And then more kisses. I have to tug her off of me. “Hey, look, honey, uh, all I did was put a nail in a wall.”

Yeah, maybe I am exaggerating, but only just a little. And I am not alone in viewing things this way. “Estonian women prefer Estonian men and it is normal and natural that they should,” writes British Estonian columnist Abdul Turay. And for those Estonian women whom fate has dealt a foreign man? “Simple, they Estonianize them,” Turay says. “Any guy with an Estonian woman will eventually learn how to chop wood or put up shelves.”

This may be shocking, but since I met Epp, I have chopped wood and put up shelves. Ikea shelves at least.

Anyway, I think the reason that “golden hands” annoys me is the same reason that it makes the Estonian women around me so proud. In my pop psychology interpretation of things, everything can all be explained by those all-important early childhood years. And when you look at my early childhood years and my wife’s early childhood years, very different pictures emerge.

When I came into the world, many women in America were burning their bras. They called it a feminist “revolution” or a “liberation,” but whatever it was, young ones like myself were the guinea pigs of the social experiment of the day. Traditional gender roles were reversed. Boys were encouraged to show their feelings, even to have dolls if they wanted them. Yes, it’s true, there was a popular children’s song called “William Wants a Doll.” Want to play with dolls instead of hammers? It was perfectly normal by the standards of the day.

Girls were encouraged to achieve, to be ambitious, to be athletic and tough. Want to be the only girl on the football team? Here’s your helmet. See you at practice! And if there were any gender conflicts in childrens programming, it was the clever girls who always outsmarted the stupid boys. Always. So now, 30 years later, it comes as a surprise when studies show that many men of my generation in America are regarded as excellent cooks. Women our age in turn have successful careers, many of them making up the managerial class, boasting about what terrible cooks they are.

And we tell ourselves that these things just happen.

Yet one of these wayward, sensitive, gourmet chefs now finds himself in a land where showing one’s feelings and making delicious dinners isn’t worth so much. There were no bras burned in Tuhalaane, where my wife spent her formative years. There was no “revolution.” Boys didn’t have dolls. Girls didn’t always win. That didn’t mean they were all passive. “She is of the rare breed of industrious farmer’s daughters,” one of my Estonian friends once said of my wife. “Mostly it’s these kinds of women who can land themselves a foreign husband.” Yes, she is clever, tough, resilient, all of these wonderful things that I was taught to value.

But she also expects that if there is a hammer lying around, any hammer, that I put it away.

This is another country. I have to try to fit in, play by their rules, not vomit everytime I hear women gush about some guy’s “golden hands.” And even if it’s my “golden pen” that pays the bills, I must find some time each day to do a little home renovation, just to show that I haven’t forgotten what’s really important in life — painting doors, chopping wood, and putting up shelves. And if it so happens that I walk by a hammer in the kitchen, any hammer, then I know I must seize it at once and start hammering everything in sight, for as long as I can muster, like a Tuhalaane farmer of old, or Comrade Stakhanov himself, until my hands are so golden with sweat that they shine in the dark.