Thursday, October 22, 2020

The architecture of limited possibilities

There certainly is what doctors call a "migraine personality," and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist. "You don't look like a migraine personality," a doctor once said to me. "Your hair's messy. But I suppose you're a compulsive housekeeper." Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.

Despite the migraines, Joan Didion packs a mean sentence. The White Album is a relatively early collection of what are commonly considered her lesser essays, among which is "In Bed," quoted above, on being perceived as someone afflicted by an imaginary illness. 

I've been dipping into these essays for months. They're too rich to consume all at once, though the temptation is there. Spanning 1968 to 1978, most of the articles hold up, though I cringe at how wrong she got feminism and I disagree with her assessment of Doris Lessing. 

Still, the essays offer a view onto American life of the time as seen from Didion's particular vantage point —a place of educated privilege. She concerns herself with water, shopping mall theory, Hollywood. She has access to celebrities and political figures, fancy hotels and Hawaiian vacations.

My favourite essay in this collection is "Many Mansions," and it owes its status to the peculiar circumstance of my reading it during a pandemic.

I have over the last seven months become obsessed with the notion of home and the buildings within which we make them. I have spent most of those last seven months inside my own home, a modern 2-bedroom condo of less than 800 square feet, shared with my daughter and my cat. 

I have spent a great deal of the almost 5 years that I've lived here channeling Jimmy Stewart. My Rear Window is less New York. It's very Montreal, overlooking a dead-end ruelle down which many people walk their dogs. I overhear French (both Quebecois and from France), Spanish, and some English. I have my very own concert pianist living just up and over to the left (though she took up the cello last spring), and over to the right is an elderly couple who listen to the radio tuned between stations at a very loud volume. The cat downstairs from them is now kept on a leash; I've seen it climb through the windows of other people's apartments. 

But my Front Window, overlooking the building courtyard, is conceptually more akin to Hitchcock's setting — children play, neighbours tend the garden and share a bottle of wine. I have watched people inside their homes play guitar, read, watch tv. I have witnessed dinner parties and seductions, and even a couple of illegal gatherings during lockdown. These days I see people carry their laptop from room to room.

I have in the past offhandedly aphorized that "home is where I lay my head" or "where I keep my stuff." Now home is also where I work, eat, play, learn, create, and sometimes die a little inside. It's where I really live. All the time.

When I'm not at home, I'm wandering around the neighbourhood, imagining what's behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

All this to say: my home is small, and I feel compelled to cross other people's thresholds, partly to expand my own domain by infringing on theirs, partly simply to understand how other people inhabit their own little boxes. The "downtime" that other people waste on social media I spend perusing real estate listings. 

My "hobby" took off in earnest when we were looking for an apartment for my mother this summer. It's not quite right for her, I would think, but this room would make a great study for the girl, and I could set up a desk in this corner.

I adjust my search filters regularly. Some days I hunt in earnest for a realistic upgrade within my means; other times my fantasy home is unconstrained. I consider what it would be like to live alone. I wonder what my life would be like if I lived across town. Would it make sense to live close to the office if I never go to the office anymore? If I had an in-home studio, could I quit my day job and support myself on my art? How long would it take me to clutterify and completely obscure a minimalist design? 

In "Many Mansions" Didion explores the official residences of the Governor of California, focusing on the monstrosity the Reagans built and never lived in.

It its simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently "democratic," flattened out, mediocre and "open" and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of "background music," decorators, "good taste." 

As I swipe photos, I realize very little of real estate is real. I saw my mother's house staged when it was listed for sale, and essentially stripped of all personality. I no longer trust listings, the words they use, the pictures they show. One roll of photos displays empty rooms and then the same rooms furnished. Another listing is a new build, not yet built, that offers imagined renderings. I recognize the layout of paintings on one bedroom wall matching exactly a room layout halfway across town, with only the mass market art reproductions swapped out.

The walls "resemble" local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and exposed beams "resemble" native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown. If anyone ever moves in, the concrete floors will be carpeted, wall to wall. If anyone ever moves in, the thirty-five exterior wood and glass doors, possibly the single distinctive feature in the house, will be, according to plan, "draped." The bathrooms are small and standard. The family bedrooms open directly onto the nonexistent swimming pool, with all its potential for noise and distraction. To one side of the fireplace in the formal living room there is what is know in the trade as a "wet bar," a cabinet for bottles and glasses with a sink and a long vinyl-topped counter. (This vinyl "resembles" slate.) In the entire house there are only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month, plus maybe three Royal Doulton figurines and a back file of Connoisseur, but there is $90,000 worth of other teak cabinetry, including the "refreshment center" in the "recreation room." There is that most ubiquitous of all "luxury features," a bidet in the master bathroom. There is one of those kitchens which seem designed exclusively for defrosting by microwave and compacting trash. It is a house built for a family of snackers.

I have discovered about myself that I like cedarwood ceilings and value closet storage systems, but I don't feel strongly about whether the bathroom has a separate shower stall. I may compromise on the configuration of my kitchen but will not yield my outdoor space. I want to have room to better compartmentalize my life.

I believe that this condition of house envy is temporary. Once the pandemic abates and freedom to move and socialize in other spaces is restored, the demands I put on my home will be recalibrated. I will resume a state of domestic bliss where my home meets all my needs. 

Until then, every morning I stop by "the café" (the cappuccino machine at the end of the kitchen counter), and roll through "the office" (12 square feet in the dining room where I squeezed in a workstation) to lounge in "the library" (30 square feet by the window with a comfy chair and a pile of books) every morning, where I sneak a look at new listings between chapters.

The old Governor's Mansion does have stairs and waste space, which is precisely why it remains the kind of house in which sixty adolescent girls might gather and never interrupt the real life of the household. The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.

"The Women’s Movement" (1972)
"Holy Water" (1977) 

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