A chair is still a chair…

A quote from filmmaker Larry Jordan about Jess and Robert Duncan’s home in San Francisco in the 1950’s:

Jess was deciding that he would like to build a home and maintain a home and have the magic, the protection of a home. And he taught me a great deal of my life style out of that – what the meaning of a home is. it’s a whole lot more than bourgeois values, it’s a magical kingdom and it needs to be protected from the wayward vibrations that come and go. So there were rules about who could come and it was very civilized: it was not the usual American flop pad at all. They abhorred pads, sleeping on the floor on mattresses. And that taught me a great deal about being civilized…

This is included in Rebecca Solnit’s book Secret Exhibition, Six California Artists of the Cold War Era. When I read it, something fell into place; I grew up in Manhattan, in a series of apartments, and the idea of owning a house has never held much meaning for me. As I’ve gone on with my life, most of my environments have been treated like ever larger versions of my teenage room: the place where I can put up what ever I want and my parents can’t say anything, the place that I clean only when I’m forced to do chores, the place that’ll eventually move out of anyway. I realize how often I’ve made decorating decisions based on a supposed effect for someone else, how much it’s been about display. The idea that I clean, not for the pleasure of working or of having clean things, but out of embarrassment about someone else seeing it.

What moves me in the passage above is the notion of home making as a craft toward an end, an end that is inner rather than outer. That a home is a place where certain unique kinds of things and feelings can happen, as opposed a space that people move through. That you could craft your home to produce those feelings, those results. I spoke a while back about the different attitude I take toward the art I own as opposed to other sorts of objects: because the art is so visibly the result of someone’s (in my case usually a friend’s) effort and thought, I’m a much more careful custodian of it than I am with other things. I’d like to have that relationship all of the things I have, to have respect for what they represent and what their possibilities are. I see that in the way bad_faggot treats boot blacking. It’s one kind of power to make something; as an artist it’s a power I’m well acquainted with. There’s another kind of power in maintaining something. That power I’ve never really explored or bothered with. The quote above makes me think that it might be time

I’ve had mice in my current apartment of and on since I moved in, and tried various ways of dealing with them, including glue traps which are easily the most horrific. A while back I was reading some book on Zen and the abbot of a monastery was asked about the problem of how to deal with mice in the home. He said that if a home was properly maintained, the mice would leave, since there would be nothing for them to feed on. At times the mice in my apartment have made me start at every little movement in my peripheral vision. I hope that one of the things I’ll be able to do is make a place, a home where I can actually welcome people, and and not be fretting about all the lose ends of my life, gnawed by mice.

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  1. This post resounds off many ideas I have about my own post. The “wayward vibrations” remind me of my upstairs neighbours who I wish I didn’t have to share space with. I wish for more solitude, more control over the energies that influence my living space.

    On the other hand we’re social animals. The well-adjusted mind probably copes better than I do with other lives interacting with its space. But maybe the hermit has a significant role in society, too. Shaman, artist, mystic, wise one? It feels like my niche, but I still feel uncomfortable with the isolation at times.

    I used to hate the pressure to clean my place. It always depended on the expectations of others. Maybe I told you before how that started to change. From having guests in, I discovered how it made me feel good to keep the place tidier, because my friends gave me happiness, so I did it to look after myself.

    Lately I feel more secure in my relationships, so I don’t worry as much about how my apartment looks. I can relax a little. It feels like a healthy middle ground between slovenly and immaculate.

  2. I realize how often I’ve made decorating decisions based on a supposed effect for someone else, how much it’s been about display.

    Hmm, you make it sound like that’s a bad thing.

    There comes to mind several extreme examples of “display” I’ve heard of – color coordinating the books on the shelf, vacuuming the carpet in straight lines, and (I kid you not) placing a velvet rope in the door of the picture-perfect dining room so that nobody may enter.

    But there is also the angle of giving your friends a place to feel comfortable and peaceful when they visit. An orderly home is, in many ways, a less foreboding place, where other people have freedom that is denied to them when their needs aren’t considered.

    One of the things I like about having big dinner parties is “borrowing the eyes” of the guests before they arrive. I see all sorts of things I want to change on their behalf, and that ends up making the place better for us as well.

    As for the mice thing – yes. Eliminate all crumbs, stains, glops, splashes, and other unlikely sources of nutrition, and mice and cockroaches alike will flee. Unfortunately, they can live for a long time on small “stores” of stuff down in cracks, etc. so it’s definitely a long-term project.

  3. on maintenance

    He said that if a home was properly maintained, the mice would leave, since there would be nothing for them to feed on.

    It is weird just how paranoid the presence of even one mouse can make one. Last fall we trapped about a half dozen mice in this place; for months, I saw mice in every corner.

    I will attest to the truth of the abbot’s saying. Once I had scraped the years-long accumulation of yellow gunk out of the inside of the stove, the mice disappeared and have yet to return. I suspect the reason why we were so infested with them had to do with the apartment’s having been vacant a long time before we moved in. Simply living here, with minimal maintenance, has transformed the apartment into a home for humans instead of for mice.

    That said: I wish that household maintenance were as sexually exciting as maintaining gear. Neither washing dishes nor cleaning the bathroom floor has ever given me a boner. Funny, too, how much more exciting maintaining other people’s stuff seems to be – I rarely clean my own boots, you know. Part of it is making a connection with them, I suppose; part of it is likely just my meddlesome way of insinuating myself into other’s worlds.

    After seeing my parents bankrupt themselves and destroy their health and sanity buying and selling a series of houses in my childhood, I vowed I would never own real estate. Recent experiences have turned that opinion around. I remember for years as a kid I would devour library books on furniture, interior design, houseplants, concocting various schemes for how my ideal room would look which my parents would never realize (and even if realized, would perforce be discarded in a few years anyway).

    Honestly, my return to New York, my involvement in leather, the move to libraries, all are about cultivating a kind of stability which I could only fantasize about imposing on my life as a kid, the kind of stability which only existed in books. I now have ten houseplants. Keeping them alive and around is a way of fighting off those destabilizing forces, the shock of coming home from college to find that my parents had sold my bed and thrown my jade tree in the garbage.

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