--excerpt from bad novel
Magazines about architecture or interior design always intrigue me. So often, they create a fictional world, in which money is no object, high fashion rules over functionality, and dust not only sleeps, but actually disappears. The net result is the equivalent of a romance novel--sometimes engaging, but never at all particularly real.
In life, I've met a few people who live as if they were a carefully chosen studio of really cool European furniture: the kind that fits snugly into those transom-and-high ceilings apartments, which the Scandinavian chain-store IKEA seems to "knock off" into affordable items that fit into oblong boxes. I've also met a few people who live life very largely, with immaculate heavy furniture, suitable for charming southern aristocrats to lounge upon, discussing matters of agriculture and refined taste. I've known a few people who live Danish Modern lives, as well as more than one person who lives a life of intricate outre fashion, absolutely too cool for words.
But I'm devoting this post to the notion that in life most of us are simpler furniture of one type or another. When I was single, and acquired my own furniture with an emphasis on comfort rather than with the current air of mutual aesthetic sense, I bought a La Z Boy recliner from Sears. This La Z Boy was brown naguahyde, and I am so thankful that PETA was much less active then, because I would imagine that so many naguas died to make that chair that if discovered, I might have been doused with rayon in public places.
I loved that La Z Boy chair. I set it in my little postage-stamp first home in the center of a living room. On sunny but cold winter days, the sun beamed in through one of those oblong sliver windows which tract home developers put into tiny homes to give the illusion the homes are fashionable. I used to lie back in that chair, and feel the rays of the sun wash over me.
My metaphor here is that most of us are practical furniture rather than more high-flown stuff. We serve pragmatic purposes in a world that is rarely as picturesque or fashionable as we might desire. A few of us rage against this condition, as if we have a divine entitlement to be on Home and Garden Television in one of those spots about the most elite interior design. Some of us try to make little elitisms about our condition, as if being original Shaker furniture is somehow better than being a repro. But I think that most folks just accept that they are good, solid barcaloungers in the great tract home of life.
When did it become so unfashionable to just live life simply and
happily? I'm not sure, but sometimes I think that folks cannot imagine the idea that they may be bit players in the great scheme of life. But what is this "great scheme" to which they aspire? Is it the honor of being on the front lines of waging war and cutting taxes? Is it the intriguing delight of making tenure and pontificating to others while co-devotees wither and fade away? Is it really being able to replace the La Z Boy and the station wagon with designer furniture and a Mercedes? Is it being really "hip", so that others will recognize how cool one is? It it either being or having things by which one is or acquires some superficial physical beauty? All these things seem so limited to me.
I'm reading Trollope again, the workaday wonder of 19th Century Brit lit, whose work dwells on class foibles with a sure hand and a gentle wit. Although Victorian class structure was more rigid than our own, I'm repeatedly struck by how many echoes of our own national class structures resonate for me when I read these books. In Trollope, just as in my real life, a small firm attorney such as myself resides in the professional classes, a "gentleperson" in the most broad, least restrictive sense, but not quite one of the "power elite".
I remember once being at a party in Kansas City when a kind soul asked me if Dallas society wasn't hard to break into, because it is based so much on clique. I assured her that there are indeed at least two social "cliques" for elite society, one in the rich cities of Highland Park and University Park, and one in the elite areas of North Dallas. But I also told her a simple truth--most of us in the Dallas area live in the suburbs and ignore these cliques altogether. I could not imagine wanting to belong to an "elite social set" any more than I could imagine wanting to belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution (gender confusion issues aside). This is of course just as well, as my own role in life makes me more likely to be destined for meetings at bagel shops with nanowrimo.org folks or perhaps a membership in Friends of the Library (I keep forgetting to fill out the forms) than any social or political standing in life.
But I think in life folks tend to beat themselves up for their very ordinariness. Somehow it has become a shortcoming for a thinking person to imagine him or herself as just another ordinary suburban person. I live in one of those "boom" edge cities which is an upper middle class suburb surrounded by upper upper middle class suburbs. I'm intrigued when housing begins to go up nearby whose price exceeds 300,000 dollars, when perfectly affordable and sizable housing is available in similar sizes and the same school districts for 150,000 to 200,000 dollars. It's as though the material expenditure is a red badge of courage--a proof that one is not some boring suburban person. The very proof, of course, negates the premise, as this way of looking a life is conclusive proof that one is a boring suburban person.
The odd thing is that this is not a city in which housing is built with any particular charm. Dallas is a city which worships its office buildings. Downtown Dallas is a wonderful tribute to the power and beauty of the old "new international style"--a place where the Phillip Johnsons and IM Peis and their devotees ran amok, to largely good effect. But suburban Dallas is brick quarter-pounder tract and custom housing--solid, likeable stuff, but not architecturally interesting. If one pays more for a home here, one tends to get a slightly larger postage stamp lot,
a slightly more imposing brick, and some slight elitism in the neighborhood association--but one does not really get a "cooler" looking home or way to live.
My notion is that the odd materialism implied by this move to get a "bigger quarter pounder" is just one most attempt to turn back the sheer mundaneness of life. I don't begrudge people who work hard or well from seeking material rewards for their efforts. But I do wonder if this isn't one more way to try to turn a La Z Boy into hand-made European luxury furniture.
Folks are so darn hard on themselves. They want to beat themselves up for living lives in which they do the best they can, hold down their jobs, love their families, and find a moment of serenity at the margins. I meet so many people who might be happy, but that they feel so undistinguished. But, really, what is this missing thing? I cannot believe that peer recognition could be that thing, because in my experience society's "peers" recognize all the oddest people for all the oddest things. I cannot imagine that material success is the missing thing, as money is fun and not wrong to earn, but it certainly does not suffice as a substitute for living.
In my experience, we live in a narrowcast world. If one develops a hobby or passion, and lives it out nobly, one can be recognized by a small group of kindred spirits whom one admires. I think that LJ is one proof of that, but I could cite hundreds of other similar settings, from succulent plant societies to fancy guppy societies to chess clubs to charitable organizations to churches. One can make one's own little impact in so many ways. My observation is that any kindred soul can find a niche in which to do works of small, timeless beauty.
I think that many of us are floor lamps, sofas and wrought iron plant stands. I fancy myself to be a sort of really kitschy La Z Boy. I know that a few of us long to be fine antiques, prized throughout the world. But for my money, give me comfort and durability any time.
My metaphor's utility is too limited, but my point is simple enough anyway--when did it become so important to be somebody important, and what does it mean? What good does it do to, as the fellow said, "gain the world and lose your soul"?
I think we all want to discover radium, when we live in a world in which a scientist lives a fulfilling life if she learns of the smallest portion of the smallest particle of the smallest confirmation of a treasured theory. I believe "be contented" is too easy a mantra, but I'm quite willing to live with "examine your assumptions that lead you to discontent" as the proper skeptic's caution.
I'm going to sit on my sofa and think on this.