Fathers, on pause

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE OLD, CURVY, AT LEAST TWICE- reupholstered couch at the center of the Hamilton home where Danny Mydlack, his wife and two young children live has come a long way. Or, as Mydlack whimsically puts it, the couch is "kind of a big elephant we ride along on."

"This big beast," he says, "we schlepped from Los Angeles to Baltimore. It's been this big creature who has sort of lumbered us through the years."

Whatever significance a couch holds for a man, it changes radically with fatherhood, Mydlack says. "Before you have kids, you're so worried about the look of the couch, its style and what it says about you," he says. "The couch is a kind of a trophy. Boy does that fly right out of the window after having kids."

With the arrival of offspring, a couch is judged in more humble terms -- by its ability to hold infants and whether it is "spit-up proof," Mydlack says. By those standards, the deep-blue couch strewn with red roses that enfolds him, wife Caroline Chavasse and their brood is a perfect specimen, one that begs a timeless question:

Which came first -- the dad or the couch? For those who believe in evolution, the answer is obvious. And yet, the patriarchs who inhabit pop culture's living rooms appear to have materialized on the scene attached to their intelligently designed couches -- leaving the general impression that all fathers, if given a choice, would spend all quality time in repose.

In truth, though, the dad and the couch question is a bit more complicated.

When taking stock of the sofa and the countless paternal still lifes that it conjures, cliche and reality overlap, kind of like a pile of giggling kids on a snoozing dad's belly. Mydlack's affection for his pet couch adds a refreshing dimension to an iconic prop that has served iconic fathers from Dagwood Bumstead to Bill Cosby to Homer Simpson.

Hear his story, and the sofa breaks from type to play a unique role in his household. "It's the couch I wedged a 2-by-4 into to prop up the old springs just to see if 2-year-old Louis would bounce higher when he sprung up for the letter 'J for jump' in his ABC Symphony video," says Mydlack, a film professor at Towson University.

Get up, ladies

Well before it became a playground, community center and Sunday nap central for papas from Maine to Hawaii, the sofa served in more ceremonial capacities.

In ancient Rome, upper-class dads (and other male elites) dined on banquet couches while women sat on chairs or did all the cooking, according to different historical accounts. Briefly, women got dibs on the couch, as Constance King explains in An Encyclopedia of Couches: Sofas became "superb fashion accessories for the crinoline-clad ladies of the 1850s and '60s, and provided an excellent setting for receiving visitors."

As couches turned plump and comfy and able to hold ashtrays and drinking glasses, women were ejected from their decorative perches to make way for a nascent generation of couch potatoes. "From the 1840s, when sprung seats came into general use, writers on deportment tended to grumble about the lounging attitudes of men, who were often seen sprawling on sofas -- even in the presence of ladies," King writes.

More than 150 years later, the ladies have been left standing, at least in media portrayals of domestic life. As she researched the history of the remote control, Kathy Newman, a professor of television and radio at Carnegie Mellon University, found countless images of men (usually bald) ensconced in their easy chairs, remote at the ready.

Women are often depicted in these cartoons and ads as annoying interference to their husband's leisure time, whether spent in a Barcalounger or a couch, Newman says. The underlying fear that "women would sit down to watch television and none of the housework would get done" also came across in these visuals, she says.

Have those stereotypes seeped into real life? "That relationship between the image and reality is always a hard one to call," Newman says. "I guess I still see a cultural trend toward allowing men a privileged space for relaxation that women are not entitled to, even when they are working outside the home."

On screen, the couch is a cultural signifier that beams a character's economic status, disposition and familial role, says Patty Williamson, who teaches at the Central Michigan University School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts.

"In terms of male stereotypes, [the couch has] become a real convention of sitcoms, especially these days," Williamson says. Such shows paint a portrait of the "lazy, somewhat overweight, but lovable father who is also funny. You tend to see him on the couch a lot with a beer in hand or soda, watching the game. It tends to be a cliche that television dads fall into.

"On the other hand, you don't see women depicted sitting on the sofa as much," Williamson says. "They tend to fall into the opposite [stereotype] of the TV sitcom dad -- the domineering, nagging but often depicted as much brighter wife and also more active. It's a contrast a lot of sitcoms rely on for their comedies these days."

All of those unattractive implications can slough into a real father's relationship with his couch. Dads respond to those subliminal messages about their paternal credentials in different ways.

"Since getting married, I have not watched a single sporting event from that couch," declares Mydlack, 46. "But I have had countless naps with newborns on it, helped route Hot Wheels track over it and found more than a few lost sneakers (size 3) underneath it."

On the other hand, Synji Watts proudly lays claim to his supine reign over the television. "I own the couch on Sundays pretty much the whole football season," says Watts, the Hampden father of three children. On weekends, though, the couch is "pretty much our Saturday morning meeting place."

Watts' benevolence comes easily. He and his wife, Sequinta, recently bought an IKEA sectional couch on sale. "I get one section all to myself," says Watts, 33, who works at a furniture company and is in the mortgage business.

Couch's changing role

Once reluctant to forgo a life of adventure for domesticity, author Ron Carlson celebrates a newly purchased couch's invitation to indolence in his contribution to The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings about Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom (HarperCollins, $13.95):

"Suddenly our house had a new center. It became the station where everyone flopped out when they came home. We sat on it and watched all the effluvia of Western civilization. I saw men and women conquer Everest, challenge asteroids, float the Amazon," writes Carlson, a writer and professor at Arizona State University. "We've had the couch just over a year now, and it's shot the way the great couches are shot. If you sit in a certain place, good luck getting up. There's a strong chance that if you come in and sit down second, you're going to end up with someone's ankles on your lap. It's a posture that shows you're related."

In his essay for the same book, Gettysburg College creative writing professor Fred Leebron doesn't reject his pop-culture doppelganger or his couch. Instead, he revels in the couch as a timeless symbol of marital discord. After a screaming fight with his wife about his slight of a child, Leebron lands on the couch, presumably for the entire evening. It becomes, if not a teachable moment, a recline-able moment:

"I could do this. I could spend the whole night on the couch. Men everywhere have been doing this for years. Decades. Centuries. I was fairly certain that this was the whole reason that couches were invented. After awhile I couldn't even remember the exact reason for our fight. I just kept seeing myself as yet another guy spending a night on the couch, when there was an entire half of a big bed upstairs with his name on it."

When his wife was pregnant, Brian Ralph of Charles Village often voluntarily slept on the low-slung IKEA couch built at "an angle that allows for multiple angles of slouch." It was not because they quarreled, the cartoonist says. "She complained about my tossing and turning in bed, and it was hard enough for her to get to sleep."

After Miles was born two years ago, his father would feed him in the middle of the night and then, "I'd lay on the couch with him," Ralph says. "Now that Miles is an older guy, we end up using the cushions to build forts," says Ralph, 32. The furnishing is "home base for the house," he says. "We don't really hang out in the dining room or the kitchen." But he, Miles and wife Megan Luther, co-owner of the Hampden boutique Double Dutch, "always hang out on the couch."

Mike Wolf tries to ignore the siren call of the big couch that extends nearly the width of his East Baltimore rowhouse. After a long day, the software developer and his wife, Cherokee Layson-Wolf, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Maryland, aren't always successful. "We generally hide from the thing," Wolf says, "in fear that when we do sit down the day is gone, and we'll wake at 3 a.m. still on the couch."

Unlike the family pug, their 2-year-old son, Holden, "doesn't really hang out on the couch," says Wolf, 30. "He will come up and lean against it and drop things on it," but that's about it. "That's somewhat a good thing," says Wolf, who doesn't want to grow a little couch potato.

The couple's eventual plan, he says, is to replace their unwieldy sofa with one that is easy to clean. It must also be comfortable. "But not too comfortable," Wolf says, "so it does not suck the life out of us."

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stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

SOFA, SO GOOD

It's Father's Day, prime couch time for dads across the land. Here's how to spend it in your favorite lair, be it covered in pleather, leather or velour; be it ugly, ultra cool or utterly innocuous:

Tap into the collective couchness of the universe. Envision sprawled dads everywhere, at one with sofas.

Leave the couch only during commercials -- if you must. Order snacks and drinks from your wait staff.

Channel surf to your heart's delight. On this day of all days, no one is allowed to complain.

Make like a dad from a 1950s sitcom: smoke a pipe, issue decrees, train your dog to bring your slippers, sit back and smell the meatloaf.

Watch DVDs of Leave it to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, The Cosby Show and Family Guy.

Find $5 in change under the cushions. Send a kid out to get ice cream.

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