Fashion for Men

“Leaning on the Balcony Railing, Holding the Universe Together.” And: A Gift Guide for Men.

By: Jen Shoop

A thoughtful reader left an intriguing comment on one of my posts last week (thank you, Bhavna), and it’s been on my mind ever since.  The thesis she presents is that mothers tend to carry a mental load many times greater than fathers do.  I recognize something familiar in this statement, but I also struggle to accept it, as I explained in my reply.

But I left something out of my response, I realized, as I mulled it over.  And it has a lot to do with this quote from J.D. Salinger:

“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”

Only replace she with “he” — Mr. Magpie.

Mr. Magpie bears the brunt of my emotionality.  I am a crier.  And I fret about everything — the things that don’t matter, and the things that do, like whether my parents’ train will be late tomorrow, or when I need to order my Christmas cards by, or how long Tilly will live (gulp), or whether I should size up in mini’s diapers, or whether I was unkind to my sister in our last interaction.  These restlessnesses occasionally pile up into a tangle of anxiety that leave me sleepless for nights on end.  When I unload what’s on my mind, Mr. Magpie nods, helps me unpack them, and gives me permission to stop worrying about things, often offering to carry them for me in one way or another.  “Don’t worry about the car thing — I’ll take care of it,” he said, after we had agonized over whether to sell our car or not when moving to Manhattan.  “But Jennie, who cares?” he’ll throw out, tentatively, on the topic of whether or not I have done something that others might take issue with.  And: “One thing at a time.”

The day before my scheduled c-section, we had planned to drop Tilly off for two weeks of boarding.  That morning, I could not even look at Tilly without dissolving into tears.  When we arrived at the boarder’s, I was hysterical.  I clutched Tilly’s collar.  I sobbed big, fat tears into Mr. Magpie’s shirt.  Rivulets of mascara streamed down my face onto my belly.

Jen-nie,” Mr. Magpie said into my hair as he held me, adopting this specific, tender voice he uses when I am upset about something to the point of laughability: kind, reassuring, and also slightly bemused.  He looked down at me with a buoying smile.  “I know.  Everything is changing.  But it’s going to be the best.”

I nodded, snot-faced and overwhelmed.  I understood, in a flash, what he had evidently seen in my outbursts all morning.  It wasn’t the dog.  It was what her going away represented: we were dissolving our family of three, making way for a fuller family of four.  And I was staring into the unknown of that transformation as I watched Mr. Magpie lead Tilly into the boarder’s.

So much of what Mr. Magpie contributes to our family is done wordlessly, or at most laconically — and always without fanfare.  He often “gets” things before I do, sees the root concern before I have the wherewithal to make heads or tails of what I’m facing, but then he stands, calmly, broad-shouldered, in the center of it, waiting for me.

This is why I struggle with the portrait of marital inequality referenced at the outset of this post.  It may well be that I bear a disproportionately long list of to-dos around the house, that I am taxed with details in ways he will never be.  And it may well be that for many women, this imbalance is unjust or unhealthy or punitive or unkind.  And I make space for those women.  I respect them and stand with them and long for them to find peace.

But I don’t feel that way in our home, where Mr. Magpie silently accepts and shoulders my emotions and anxieties and concerns, where we both pull our weight in different ways, where he may not be doing a thing I can see, except standing there, leaning on the balcony railing, holding my universe together.

Post-Scripts: Gifts for Men.

Below, a couple of ideas on what to buy for the men in your life, many of which I’ve given Mr. Magpie and the other men in my life in years past.  Links are beneath the collage.

+The Marmot PreCip Windbreaker.  Perfectly priced at around $100 (some colors on sale!), this is the perfect gift for nearly any man given its versatility and simple styling.  Mr. Magpie’s is cherry red and he wears it constantly.  It’s ideal for rainy, cool days — but it also has side-vents that can be used in warmer weather.  It’s as appropriate for outdoor excursions (he used it intensively while hiking and fishing in Colorado) as it is for walking the dog in Central Park.  And whatever the weather — rain, wind, sun, sleet — he’s prepared.

+Lodge Skillet.  The second best thing to a grill for manly cooking.  These inexpensive workhorses are used CONSTANTLY in our kitchen; we have two.  You can char and brown virtually anything in these, whether toasting hot peppers for salsa or searing a juicy ribeye.  It’s important to pre-heat these skillets so that heat distributes more evenly.  The 8″ or 10″ sizes are perfect for everyday use.

+Enamel mugs.  I bought my brother a set of these, knowing he’d like the outdoorsy styling and feeling they’d be appropriate for him at this stage of his life, when he lives in Billings, MT — “big sky” country.  I could imagine him taking his son camping with these, or sitting on a wood porch watching the sun rise, doling out wisdom, over a hot cup of coffee in the morning.  As you can see, there’s something evocative, story-telling-inducing about these.

+Long johns.  A good gift for an avid skiier or outdoor enthusiast.  Mr. Magpie recently took his on a three-day hike in Scotland.  Layers matter.

+Jack Black Beard Oil.  Mr. Magpie grows a really good beard in the winter (I love it), and has recently been complaining that his skin is itchy.  This oil comes extremely highly reviewed and is currently en route to him.  I find that it’s pretty uncommon that guys are interested in splurging on skincare, so holidays are an ideal occasion to splurge for them.  I also picked up this face wash (reviews!) and this moisturizer for him.  (Left to his own devices, I know he will use body soap and hand lotion on his face.)

+Kuhn Rikon Peeler.  A great stocking stuffer for a cooking enthusiast.  These are THE BEST peelers — small, easy to wield, non-bulky, extra sharp (there’s something about this brand’s blades that makes them stay sharp forever), and super cheap.  This might also be a good addition to a big bag of kitchen gear for a budding cooking enthusiast.  (More of our favorite kitchen finds here.)

+Nest Smoke Detector.  For the smart home enthusiast / gadget lover.  I bought Mr. Magpie Nest thermostats (<<read the reviews!  #boom) for our Chicago home two or three years ago and I’ve never seen him more excited.  This would have been next on our list.  Nest is an incredible company and you can control all of their products with your smartphone.  They also boast sleek, non-obtrusive designs, unlike the boxy, yellow/beige monstrosities of yore.  Mr. Magpie has talked about these smoke detectors for about two years straight.  Apparently you can let the device know if you’ll be cooking/producing a lot of smoke intentionally so that they are temporarily disabled — such a luxury for a heavy-duty cook like Mr. Magpie, who routinely sets ours off when roasting his Zuni chickens and dry-frying hot peppers for salsa.

+Stubbs and Wootton Tuxedo Slippers.  I bought Mr. Magpie a pair of these back when we were in the midst of the wedding season of our lives, and he’s gotten so much use out of them.  They are always the talk of the party and many friends’ husbands have followed suit after observing Mr. Magpie cutting a rug in his.  This brand is THE ultimate.

+Craftsman Toolbox.  Does your guy keep a pile of hammers, screwdrivers, and baggies of nails in your junk drawer?  This is such a classic gift if you have a handy-around-the-house kind of guy and — like Mr. Magpie — gets excited by the idea of new tools.  (I gave him a drill a few years back, and it went over very well.)

+Kuhn Rikon paring knives.  We have a complete set of high-end Shun knives (great gift, too: a single Shun chef’s knife), but we often use these inexpensive paring knives.  They are incredibly sharp and inexpensive — so we don’t feel horrible about dropping them in the dishwasher every now and then.  (You should really only hand-wash knives so as not to dull the blade.)  A good stocking stuffer or stock-the-kitchen guide for a college student/college grad.

+Oyster shucking gloves.  For anyone on the coasts with a taste for oysters: these are awesome for getting a grip on an oyster while shucking at home.  Mr. Magpie has a set.  See below for an upgraded oyster knife pick.

+ROI Olive Oil.  If you watched the “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” show on Netflix (or own her book! <<another excellent gift), you might recall that Nosrat goes crazy over olive oil from Liguria made from the Taggiasco olive.  This brand is apparently ridiculously delicious!

+Poncho Fishing Shirt.  The founder of this company set out to create the perfect fishing shirt — “with everything you need, and nothing you don’t.”  Mr. Magpie is just the kind of guy who appreciates this sentiment: smart design devised by people who know what they’re talking about.  I like the slim fit and the throwback khaki color.  Will be a perfect gift for the several fishermen in my family.

+R. Murphy Oyster Knives.  This brand has been around since 1815, forging cutlery — and I love that they have a variety of different kinds of oyster knives for varying shell forms.  I love that they have everything from Virginia Breakers to Seattle Shuckers.  Super cool for the oyster afficionado.

+Persol sunglasses.  I’ve given Mr. Magpie several pairs of these sunglasses over the years.  These are the exact model Steve McQueen wore; they have a kind of retro-aviator-cool vibe to them.

+Anson Mills grits.  I realize many of these gifts are food-oriented; I guess that says something about Mr. Magpie, huh?  But these grits are THE BEST THINGS ON EARTH.  If you think you have had good grits before, think again.  They have the richest flavor.  Last year, we bought some for Mr. Magpie’s parents and some for ourselves, along with some of their popping corn.

+Ralph Lauren Leather Bomber.  Timeless.  When I met Mr. Magpie, he wore this exact jacket.  Over the course of several years of college and post-college shenanigans, he managed to wear it into the ground and was sad to retire it.  After a few years without one, I surprised him with a new one.  He wears it constantly.

+Mauviel butter warmer.  Mr. Magpie and I have grand visions of an entire kitchen full of Mauviel copper cookware, but we have a lovely set of All Clad and neither the space nor the need for an upgrade.  I did buy him this butter warmer a few Christmases ago as a part of his present, and we actually find it fairly useful for very specific things: warming butter for lobster or artichokes, melting butter for baking, toasting a small amount of nuts or spices, boiling an itty bitty amount of water in order to blanch cloves of garlic (for Mr. Magpie’s famous guacamole — he has found that blanching garlic quickly in boiling water makes the garlic flavor a bit less assertive, for the better).

Not pictured, but a couple of other really good finds on the less expensive end: a Bodum French press (<<the best brand), our absolute favorite coffee mug, a classic gray marled sweatshirt (gave this as a gift to my brother-in-law and he loves it), and an accupressure mat (<<Mr. Magpie uses his almost daily).

A few other stocking stuffers: Tovolo ice spheres (for cocktail/liquor lovers!), Maldon finishing salt (<<we use this almost daily…is that bad?), a fancy version of a Kit Kat, fancy toothpaste, our new favorite toothbrushes, wireless charging pad (works for iPhones, too!), and an angled mini measuring cup for cocktail-making!

P.S.  More on Mr. Magpie.

P.P.S.  Musings on eight years of marriage and the story of us.

P.P.P.S.  A gift guide for girlfriends.

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10 thoughts on ““Leaning on the Balcony Railing, Holding the Universe Together.” And: A Gift Guide for Men.

  1. This is a lovely tribute to your husband — how wonderfully supportive he must be! I love these gift suggestions as well, as I always struggle with buying gifts for some of the men in my life, boyfriend not included (I have trouble not spending TOO much on him! Ha!) We use those Kuhn Rikon paring knives all.the.time. and now I want to try out the peeler as well! Another favorite kitchen gift in the past was a Japanese Kaico butter warmer that we also use for heating milk for oatmeal, etc. Love it!

  2. This has raised many interesting ideas for me… my husband is a similar sort of emotional support for me, but I do find myself doing the work of the family calendar and gift shopping. I don’t mind these things—enjoy them even! But they do take up a lot of mental/emotional space, especially now that my older daughter is a first grader and the girls are doing ballet and Spanish classes and getting invited to play dates. But I would also hate to turn that over to my husband, even when I sometimes feel the strain of being the one who is juggling the schedules and carpools. I read somewhere recently that the most important choice a woman can make for career success is her choice of a partner. I’m sure that’s a truism for life, but feels like such a daunting task! I’m forever grateful to the silly 21-year-old I was when I met my husband that I knew enough to hold onto him. He truly makes all the difference!

    1. This is so sweet! Isn’t it crazy that we were able to find keepers at such a young age?! Patting myself on the back…or thanking my lucky stars…or some combination of the two.

      Lots to think about with this topic; it’s spawned many conversations this week among friends and with Mr. Magpie, too!


  3. I *loved* this post (maybe it just hit home for me, but I admit to tearing up a little) and appreciate you putting words to how I often feel about my SO. That said, I also often feel conflicted about the implications of “working” after work like Amy mentioned. I worry about it less as a gender imbalance in my house (I’d get help if I asked) but more as a check on how thoughtfully I’m using my time and resources. And I know a lot of women don’t have that luxury of choice, and it’s a privilege to even have choices and time to be conflicted. Sigh. It’s a tricky balance to navigate! If you’re interested, you should read up on the idea of the “second shift” as first socialized by Arlie Hoschild in 1989. Good food for thought. Here’s a clip from the NYT book review when it was published:

    “Women, Ms. Hochschild reports, bear the brunt of what she calls a ”stalled revolution,” one that got wives out of the home and into the first shift of paid employment but resulted in surprisingly meager change during the domestic second shift. The wife, her research confirms, typically is still the primary parent and remains ultimately responsible for keeping house. In most marriages, the woman’s paid work is still considered a mere job, in contrast to the man’s career. Thus the woman’s first shift – her employment – is likely to be devalued, thereby rationalizing her continuing responsibility for the second shift. The language of domestic economics, in which husbands still ”help” wives, suggests how little conceptual change has taken place. The additional hours that working women put in on the second shift of housework, she calculates, add up to an extra month of work each year.

    1. Super interesting — hadn’t heard of Hoschild before, so thanks for sending this along. I so related to a lot of your thoughts at the outset of this post, especially the authentic conflicted feelings about things followed by The Guilt (“but this is a luxury!!!”) I have come to the perspective that although it’s important to keep my concerns and worries in perspective (i.e., not take my fortunate situation for granted), it is also OK to make space for myself to think about them and to try to do so without the seemingly inevitable attendant cloud of guilt. (I am a whole person! Having authentic emotions! I can and should let them breathe!)

      At any rate, just writing to say that I am on your page and I appreciate your taking the time to write in. Glad you connected to this fraught string of thoughts. xoxo

  4. How wonderfully supportive your husband sounds. Mine is too, but in a different ways, and some days I do feel like I carry more of the emotional burden than others. On the other hand, I am also a lot better at remembering details and multi-tasking, so it may not only be a gender thing but an ability thing. I don’t know!

    And what a fun gift guide! I got a painting commissioned of our house for the main gift, but there are some good ideas here to round it out. (I forgot I had bought that acupressure mat for my husband’s recent birthday based on your recommendation, so guess it’s going to him for Christmas.)

    1. That’s an interesting comment: “it may not only be a gender thing but an ability thing.” Now that I think about it, with our business, I tended to live in and enjoy living in the minutiae: the meticulous tracking and recording of product/tech specs in a long priority queue, the handling of the finer points of sales, etc. Mr. Magpie excelled in analyzing the data to come up with bigger picture reports that in turn formed strategy. Helpful to realize this, too; maybe we are playing to our strengths in our home life as well.

      Hope your man loves the mat like mine does!


  5. It sounds like you have a wonderful, supportive husband. And yes, I tend to diminish my husband’s role to some degree and there’s a real lesson in your writing. But I do find the biggest difference to be that when he’s home, he’s “off duty.” I know many moms, myself included, really struggle to find any time for a break; “work” hours within the home bleeding into any “downtime.” Perhaps this gets more overwhelming as children and responsibilities are added – we have three! As in driving to three kids’ activities/sports, someone’s sick, someone needs a treat for school, etc. The difference in work load and time has become more apparent. Some things can be outsourced (taxes, lawn maintenance) but when it comes to children and the careful support of them, that can not.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about today. Also, love the gift guide!

    1. Hi Amy – You are so right and I especially related to this comment: “work” hours within the home bleed into any “downtime.” How true! Naptimes are often filled with grocery-ordering, treat-making, planning for upcoming holidays, etc. I enjoy doing these things but let’s be clear: it’s not “downtime.” This was an informative comment for me. Thanks for giving me something to think about, for further shaping my perspective!


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