Monday, January 4, 2010

That Neighborhood Party: Houses

These people are all so comfortable. That's what I kept thinking Saturday night at the progressive dinner on our street. For those who don't know, a progressive dinner is like a potluck, only you move to a different house for each course of the meal. Three stops is a good number. It's kind of a hassle if you have to drive from place to place, but if you're just walking in your neighborhood, it's great, even in 20 degree weather.

So this meant going into three different big houses with three different finished basements. And I'm not talking about some paneling-and-carpet-remnant basements. These were big, fully-tricked out spaces with kitchens, bars, gyms, pool tables, you name it. Our basement is unfinished, so having another kitchen in your basement is still a novelty to me. And to a woman, every hostess told me some variant of, "We never come down here." I was like, this is a 1000 or 1500 square-foot space that you never use? It's bigger than anywhere Matt and I ever lived before we moved here. Like a little house underneath your house. Amazing, really.

I mean, we live in this place now, but I don't feel that we're really of this place, you know? I have fresh memories of living in small apartment after small apartment, and especially of raising a baby and then a small child in something under a thousand square feet. Of never, never having a washing machine actually in my living space. Of no storage. Of never having a dishwasher or more than one small bathroom. Our first apartment in California had the bathroom in the kitchen, which was itself the converted back porch of a hundred year-old house. Oy, that apartment deserves its own post someday.

Three and a half years after moving into our big-but-not-huge house, I still enjoy the space we have and am thankful for it everyday. If we were to finish our basement, this place would be huge, maybe too much for just the four of us. Anyway, what struck me about our neighbors and their places was that this is all normal for them. Nothing special. Normal and expected to have 4,000 square feet of living space, plus an actual room in your house that you can park your car in. I know, the garage thing still seems amazing. California real estate did this to me. I digress.

The other thing that struck me about the three houses we visited was that they all look basically the same inside. Like everyone shops for furniture and decorations at the same place, or put their rooms together with the same idea in mind. Not all of my neighbors adhere to this decorating philosophy, but it seems to be the majority. A while ago, I tried to characterize this style of interior decorating, and the best I could come up with was: "extreme matching, a reverence for a quasi-Tuscan look, and safe, idea-free interiors. Think burgundy and hotel art." That's pretty much it, though I would add that the overall effect is absolutely ponderous--dark colors, dark wood. Remember the whole red or maroon dining room fad? I don't remember when that was, but my neighborhood is still firmly in its grip. When not carried off competently, this look goes from bland to outright depressing. "Hotel art" isn't quite right either, because hotel paintings are usually representations of something--beaches, landscapes, people, places, you know, nouns.

Not one of my actual neighbors' houses.

What goes as artwork in my neighbors' houses is not, for the most part, pictures, or figural, representational images but more like other things stuck on the wall. Like geometric things or wrought iron bits of stuff. I would call them "wall sculptures" but that would suggest that they have more of a point of view than they really do. Pardon me if I sound like a total snob right now. But don't you know what I mean? I swear it's that, in their calculations, an actual picture of something is too risky. It might not be right or someone might not like it. There are no books on view either, so truly, an idea-free interior. It's a shame, because these are fun, smart, busy people. I don't want them to be so afraid. At this point we could reference Paul Fussell's essential and totally fun book, Class, and his claim that the middle class is the anxious class. They don't want to put themselves out there--their likes, habits, and obsessions in full view, because it might not be right, like is it really okay to have a shelf full of paperback novels in the living room? And, if I hang this drawing of a horse in my dining room, then that amounts to my aesthetic endorsement of it, does it not, and what if my judgement is not correct?

This explains what was going on the time Frenemy Neighbor came into my house and saw a portrait that a friend's mother gave us when we got married. She's an outsider/naïve painter, and she painted us a picture of a bride and groom. They're kinda funny-looking but we've had them with us a long time. Anyway, Frenemy saw it and said, "That is really. . .personal." Yes, it is, I suppose. But what she meant by "personal" was "wrong and not appropriate." A different day, she saw a little picture of a duck on my mantel, painted by the same lady. Frenemy said, as I think I've reported here before, "Did someone you really love give you that?" She herself collects porcelain roses and also any piece of artwork that depicts roses, which she can hang over the porcelain roses to reinforce, you know, the whole rose concept.


But you know where this rule of artistic safety does not apply for my neighbors? In their basements! That's where you see kids' artwork, pub signs, sports pennants, all the stuff that the people are really into. It is really funny. Down there their obsessions and pastimes are on display. I'm like, "Dude, get that autographed picture of you wearing a kilt and standing next to Jack Nicklaus upstairs where it can breathe!" Upstairs I'm like, "Where is your stack of Us Weeklies and your Nora Roberts books?" Downstairs, there they are, thank God! And it's a double shame if they really never go down there!

Was I raving?

If you are one of the people still reading, i.e., one of my blood relations, I appreciate your scrolling. In order to not make this post even longer, I will tell you about the actual people at the party tomorrow. xoxox--B


Anonymous said...

love your observations about the neighbors. i have plenty of personal on display in my living room. come on over! At a party once, a friend's husband was FASCINATED (not the right word) about my books, particulary one about Wicca (i am not a wiccan though!) and The Politics of Meat. it was a great cocktail party ice breaker.
these houses sound like my SIL. She has no taste, no interest in art or literature, and is really quite dull.

Bren said...

This post is pure SubMat. I kiss my fingertips as the Italians do to compliment a fine meal. Mwaaa.

Bonnie said...

Hey, Becky, I'm not technically a blood relation (pretty close, being Veronica's mom), and I read all the way to the end. Love it all!

Jenni said...

Loved this post, particularly the bit about the porcelin roses and the pictures of roses to reinforce the rose theme. There's no accounting for taste, my friend.

In our house, we have books in every room, pictures of our kids and family, artwork by family and friends on our walls. It's a bit of an eclectic mix, but I like it. It has personality.

Mental Momma said...

Too funny. It's Atlanta so I KNOW you saw some faux oil paintings of magnolias.

Ginny Marie said...

OK, I'll be the first to admit it...I got tired of reading after the living room photo and scrolled down to see your New Year's Eve post. But I came back and read to the end! I swear I did!

The part about the duck picture reminds me of when we were giving my husband's friend a tour of the house right after we bought it, and we were bemoaning all the horrible things the previous owners had done to the house. He looked at a multi-colored glass globe hanging from the ceiling and said, "The people who moved out must have left that here, huh?" I had just hung it was a special gift to me from my hubby!

Veronica said...

My dad has some interesting things to say about art pricing--like, lots of people will decide on a price they want to pay for art (thus knowing that their painting is worth x amount) rather than deciding on a piece of art they like (thus having something they love but not being sure whether it's "right" or has enough "value.") So somebody might buy a painting if you price it at $500, but they wouldn't buy the same painting if you price it at $300.

And I loved your whole post too!

Lisa Lilienthal said...

I second Mental Momma, that is soooo Atlanta. So suburban Atlanta. And the art is what we call "Mart Art" because all the interior designers go to the same set of showrooms at the Merchandise Mart to stock up on it. What I want to know is why you were dining in the basement instead of in, you know, the dining rooms of these homes?

Cassie said...

Excellent post. I feel uncomfortable when I'm in a house that looks "staged". I appreciate character and even a little clutter.

And I feel you on the small living spaces. I think back fondly to our 800 square foot apartment when we were first married. And only having to clean one bathroom.

Beth said...

I loved this post. And I read the whole thing. And I think my friend in Smyrna has the same basement, complete with 72" TV or some such thing that CAME with the house, where they play Wii. Of course, I loved your meditation on the middle class, too, since in my own academic work this anxiety is frighteningly important. I have a whole chapter on the haunted house story, which was at its height during C19, and how it expresses these anxieties over being respectable. William Morris would have a field day.

Becky said...

Good point Lisa, I should clarify. We were dining in the dining rooms, or standing bunched around the kitchen island in some cases, but we were having some recreation in the basements. And by recreation I mean chocolate martinis and pool.

And "mart art" is a good way to put it. I wouldn't mind an oil-painted magnolia, actually! Better than some of what I saw.

Becky said...

And Beth, that IS so totally fascinating. Makes me wish I'd been a Victorianist.

Dave said...

I second Bren's comment. This is a delicious post.

It's really interesting that the basement is where the personality comes out, and the rest of the house is basically for show and like all the other houses.

I think that clutter comforts. When I visit someone's home for the first time and see normal, un-staged stuff lying around, I think, "OK, real people actually live here, so I can relax here."

Our little living room is the opposite of an idea-free interior. Sometimes, when we have people over, I hope they won't notice a particular book or magazine lying somewhere, just so we don't have to "go there" in conversation.

Becky said...

Dave! So funny. I have that problem too sometimes, with books having titles that can be misinterpreted at a casual glance. _Searching for Whitopia_ is the current example.

gretchen said...

I just can't imagine what Frenemy would think of my house. A friend once described my decorating style as "Parisian fleamarket", which I took as a tremendous compliment.

These basements are interesting. On Long Island, where my in-laws abide, everyone has finished basements too, but they are all inhabited either by their 80 year old mother, or their 29 year old slacker son.

A Lawyer Mom's Musings said...

Rant away, riveting Rosie! Can't wait for the sequel.

"Think burgundy and hotel art" -- this is perfect. I call it the "Louis the Fifteenth" look, but your description is much, much better.

P.S. to "Mental Momma" -- in Texas, our magnolias are faux O'Keefes.

Erika said...

We are idea-free here and need your help. After the big reno, our ideas have run out. We are still in the market for some furniture and a fireplace mantel-scape. Ted did just hang some pictures finally, and at first I was a little worried that the ones we have above the fireplace were too generic. After we first bought the house, we were on a bit of a budget, so I framed a series of 4 Ansel Adams calendar pictures (Thanks, HGTV). Once we finished the remodel, I wanted to get some funky, fun wall art for above the fire place (think Marimekko). Ted was on board with it, but then one day as I was lamenting our artless room, he said, "Those Ansel Adams pictures make me happy when I look at them, because they remind me of places we've been." Nuff said. They are now hanging proudly above the fire place. I guess I was afraid that they weren't personal-looking enough and overlooked the fact that they were actually quite meaningful. I still want some Marimekko, but for now I'm happy.

Becky said...

It sounds great to me, E. I have always thought those pics look good, especially above that fireplace. You have a ton of wall space in the sunken living room though. That is where you could bust out with the Marimekko.

Mad Woman said...

Loved this post. Your observations about your neighbours are hilarious!

The Dental Maven said...

I feel your pain with the hotel art, SubMat! I guess they're the ones purchasing at those travelling "Discount Art" shows that have total crap for sale.---but it's art, right??

Sara said...

Yes, yes! Fun post!
I was thinking 'Sam's Club decor.' Not that I haven't bought me some disposable furniture from Sam's Club, but the oversized hotel art paintings and wall hanging thingies, no way!
I hate matchy matchy!
I love the oil painting I bought at the second hand store, the deer head that came with the house (and the other deer head inexplicably bought by the husband at an auction,) the taxidermied walleye that earned Sam a citation from the state of Ohio, (hmmm-why so many dead animals?,) my collection of old metal lard get the idea.
I was so happy to get our books up on the shelves in our new bedroom. I forgot how many How To Raise Chicken, Hogs, Turkeys, Horses, Bees books we have. :-)

This is another one of those posts that leave me longing to sit in your kitchen with all the other commenters fully exhausting this subject.

Jane said...

Really interesting post! I have to admit, I have a hate on for those metal mesh whatsits that hang on people's walls. Though they are probably better than what we have which is, uh, nothing.

A Day That is Dessert said...

Interesting observations about your neighbors...probably true of much of suburbia usa (rather, more affluent suburbia usa)!

Casey said...

Frenemy neighbor sounds like a total bitch. Well, a frenemy.

What I really took away from this post was my extreme jealousy that everyone up north has a basement and we don't have them in FL.

My house is decorated toddler style. That means anything potentially death-trappy or breakable got moved to the garage when Graham started crawling. Someday we'll have nice things. :)

The Messy Mom said...

Yes, yes, I too love the way you observe things and I also love that you are so real. The other day my husband was talking about how we have become out of touch in our small town compared to what we see when we go to North Dallas and all I have to say is Thank God!

Bex said...

that was a great post! i felt like i was right there with you!

i'm still in the working class but my friends are upper middle so i might get there by osmosis. anyway, their houses are gorgeous, i'm pretty sure they all decorate from Home Goods. At least, that's how I fantasize bc i "can't handle the truth" < read as jack nicholson.

so, for playdates, i invite them to my house. it shows them that
A. i am confident with having the crappiest house
B. i don't want my kids to break their pretty stuff

Elle said...

If I may, I think "We never come down here," is an extension of your observation. So, here is this space that is representative of their id, but they want to be Living-Room Superego, so they say to the neighbors, to their unknown peer group, "Oh, but we never come down here." It's very, yk, we never inhaled. Bleh.

I have never lived in that milieu -- when we lived in the suburbs, it was a million old couples & widows from the original settlement, but we occasionally -- playdates, etc -- get to see that kind of space, and I totally agree with you.

People come to our rococo-calico downtown farmhouse and something definitely changes in the way they interact with us. I am never sure what it is, though. I once described our house as if Tony & Jeannie left Cocoa Beach, stopped off at the Addamses' garage sale, and then opened up a brothel. Crazy, on the one hand, but on the other, it takes many ducats or a lot of patience to decorate this way. So, people either think we are totally unhinged, or secretly rich. Or maybe both. Dunno.

Elisa said...

Ugh, that picture you posted is scary. I hate living rooms that look like that, to me they don't even warrant the name "living room", more like "showing off and entertaining" room.

We usually decorate our living room in a way that's comfortable for day to day living as well as when we have guests over. I don't like overcrowding them with furniture (we even chose not to have a coffee table right now) and I don't like putting furniture in it that you cannot sit comfortably on. Because I want my guests to feel comfortable in my home, and it's a bit hard if the sofa looks like something they have to keep their knees together and their back straight when they sit on it ;-)

Common Household Mom said...

My mother-in-law's living room has all white furniture. If you try to sit in the living room she says, "Oh, don't sit there." Just like in that book by John Irving that I can't remember the title of. So she has achieved her goal of having the perfect living room that no one can use.

Amy said...

Gawd, I loved this post. Let me count the ways... woah, out of fingers and toes already. The kilt-Jack-Nicklaus-upstairs-to-breathe was an out-loud read for spousal appreciation. One of your finest, I'd say, and well worth the scroll!!!

You know I've got my personal out there loud n proud. Our basement houses the ping-pong table, rather than a full kitchen or somesuch. House under the house, indeed!

janimal said...

I can absolutely totally imagine each of these houses. See, I'm in a burb of Atlanta too! It's like Pottery Barn is the only acceptable decor north of the Perimete.

Elizabeth-Flourish in Progress said...

once, i went to a neighbor's home in duluth, ga and their decor was pretty much an exact match for the floor displays at rooms to go.

she then offered to helped spice up my wardrobe by taking me to a lia sophia party.