"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Need To Renovate, Expand, Refurbish, And Redo–An American Obsession

The neighbors are cutting down trees in their back yard – lebensraum they told the people next door - space for the children to play unencumbered and free; and the sunlight which had never reached past the tops of the maples and cherries, never filtered down to the ground, would now allow grass to grow.

All well and good for new residents of this upscale Washington neighborhood always seemed unwilling to let what they bought be– to let the branches of the trees grow and let their children climb or swing on their limbs,; to let the backyard stay unimproved for  one-a-cat, volleyball, and short-field soccer just like the homeowners before them did; but who, it must be said, did their own reconfiguring of fence, garden, wall, and hedges to suit their own tastes after living on Dupont Circle without any green, trees, or light and air.

Image result for images old oak trees

it isn’t so much that the recasting of the neighbors’ backyard was illogical, a waste of money and time; but that the backyard was fine as it was, and that three generations of children at least had played there without complaining.  They adjusted and accommodated just as all children do.  Time out if the ball goes into the bushes, extra points for climbing to the top limb, tree-as-defenseman immobile in pickup soccer.  What was the point of a new, trimmed, treeless, and rootless backyard?

After a death in the family, survivors, rather than give all the old man’s belongings to the Salvation Army and send the rest to the dump, use his old Victorian furnishings to finally fix up a family room which had become over the years an overflow basement, useful, forgotten, and damp.  There were no relatives in sight who would stay there.  It was only the point that mattered.

Middle aged couples, finally childless after many reproductive years which had produced no offspring, feel it is time to bump out the kitchen, double the cooking space, add track lighting and butcherblock tables, and finally replace the refrigerators and stoves which had served them well enough, but compared to the new, energy efficient, easy-access, ergonomic newer versions, were antiques.  And while they were at it, why not replace the tiles, the ceiling, the cabinets, woodwork, fans, and windows?  The fact that they had managed quite well for decades, managing small, low spaces, sticky drawers, and small cabinets with ingenuity and patience meant nothing now that they had time, liberty, and a good disposable income.

This need for change extends well beyond kitchens and family rooms, and in fact has nothing to do with wainscoting, grouting, and table tops.  It was ridiculous, Marge Hastings told her husband, to stay at home when they, thanks to two generous inheritances, could travel anywhere.  Enough of their quiet, predictable neighborhood,  the nearby college where her husband took and taught courses, the many trails along the river which were easy to walk in the Spring and Fall, and the local delis, coffee shops, and bakeries. It was time to refurbish their lives, Mrs. Hastings said, to renovate, renew, and reconfigure them; and to make even more out of the few years remaining to them than they ever done.

Of course there was nothing at all wrong, tedious, or bothersome about their lives.  Both were happy enough, engaged enough, and best of all uncluttered by new neighbors, a changing demographic, and out-of-state investment.   Where would they go? asked Mr. Hastings.  To Cancun, Turkey, Italy, California, what did it matter?  The point was scrubbing off the barnacles of an old boat that had sat in the water for far too long.  It mattered little where the boat would head, only that it would up anchor and move.

Image result for images istanbul by night

The first year of this new course set by Mrs. Hastings was challenging to say the least.  A trip to the Far West to stay with distant cousins and hike the Absarokas, to Northern California for the vineyards, San Francisco, and the hip start-up restaurants in Napa and Sonoma.  A few weeks on Cape Cod to visit her old summer haunts; a side trip to Greece to rediscover memories of an illicit romance of her twenties. 

It was tiring just to think about these trips, let alone consider the tickets, the visas, the airports, and marginal, sidebar children they would entail.  There was no payoff in any of them.  How, in these final years of his life, would a trip to the Rockies, the New England Atlantic, or Europe possibly add anything he did not already have at home?  Would Cousin Bernice, a first year graduate student in ecology at Idaho State, add anything but enthusiasm to the well-worn issue of climate change ?  Would Great Uncle Hiram, a genius with tools, re-orient his existential trajectory?  Would all the bars of downtown Livingston, Idaho Falls, Wellfleet, Calistoga, or the Mission help him sort out life’s conundrums?

It wasn’t that Marge Hastings had gotten a bee in her bonnet; and everybody seemed to have gotten antsy about staying in one place.  America was a country where nobody was happy with what is, but with only what could be.  Excluding the marginal poor who never has never have the luxury of moving;  let alone a personal makeovers.

The rest of America, however, is on a roll.  The Hastings’ neighborhood was changing weekly.  The entire block of 48th Street was being redone – the Porters were adding a sunporch; the Pinkertons a third floor; the Lovellis a rose garden; and the Levins a new, three-car garage.  Old 100 year-old sycamores were coming down, privet hedges cut and replaced by all-weather fences, front doorways protected by Venetian cupolas, and front lawns reseeded and replanted with faux-tropical reeds and evergreens.

The block had been around for 75 years with no one giving a second thought to change.  There was something important about permanence, even though it meant some measure of inconvenience.  The older residents of the block knew quite well that higher-up cabinets would eliminate awkward stoop; that bigger, more ergonomically designed refrigerators would make reaching for the milk in the back a lot easier; and that cutting down the oak tree would let in more light and give the bulbs a better chance of flourishing.  Yet they resisted change, not because they were ignorant, stubborn, or simply old; but because it simply wasn’t worth it.  What did one ever really gain from changing anything?

“If it weren’t for me”, Marge Hastings said to her husband, “you would die in your traces”, plowing the same furrow he had for decades, never looking up or around.  Only she, with her outward personality, positivism, and can-do practicality, could make their life together sustainable if not exactly happy. 

Image result for image 19th century plowing a furrow with mule

Her husband had heard this before, and the older he became, the more deaf he became to her entreaties.  There is one thing the settled have going for them – inertia – and it was simply too difficult for Marge Hastings to get her husband to the National Gallery let alone Greece or Turkey for her to persist.  He had to do nothing - lie on the couch with a book, prepare his lecture notes, take a nap, or watch a movie – and the battle was won.

His wife never got the picture, and there was always something going on in the house – retiling the patio, trimming the boxwoods, repointing the chimney, new lamps for the den – but he accepted these inconveniences as points in the marriage contract; never contested, just ignored.

Italians had the right idea, Mr. Hastings often thought.  Modern Italians live in old 16th century townhouses, negotiate streets blocked with Roman ruins, and never once think of bulldozing anything.   Change is suspect not embraced a priori.  Prove, demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that X has to go, then maybe.

Image result for images rome old renaissance apartment buildings

Both Hastings lived to a ripe old age, and despite his obstinacy and insistence on immobility as a way to enlightenment, he found that he wasn’t schmart and he was very, very old.   She, despite her insistent and lifelong dissatisfaction with what is and her perennial desire to make things over, realized that this too made no real difference to anything in the end.

A happy couple?  Not exactly; but compared to what and to whom?  Longevity counts for something; and if two people so remarkably and dramatically different in outlook could stay together, marriage might have something to say for it.

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