Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Genetics of Hypercritical Visual Distinction-Making

Let me explain. My family prides itself on its talents in aesthetics.
My grandma told me while eating cantaloupe that this one wasn't quite as good as the one she'd had about five years before. That had been the best muskmelon she'd ever eaten. I had to admire her perseverance. She was 93 at the time and still finding her opinions of produce fascinating and noteworthy.
My mother never enters my house without pointing out what needs work. That front bannister is loose; that's dangerous, I should get that fixed. Above the toilet is a patch of bubbled paint where a leak upstairs soaked through. I should call the landlord. Those concrete steps in the back are a disgrace. Call the landlord. That path to the garage (that I don't use, because we don't have a car) is uneven, somebody could trip and sprain their ankle. I should get that seen to.
Yup. I should. I actually have called the landlord. But that doesn't get it taken care of. Plenty of advice from homeowners that doesn't really translate for us renters. I can see it too. Don't remind me.
When I visit my mother's house, I also notice things. Little nests of my dad's body hair drifting into the corners of the bathroom. Dust built up behind decorative Buddha heads on the dressers. A certain proliferation of chicken-themed pottery in the kitchen. Balled up tissues crammed down the sides of the recliners. But I figure they know this and don't need to be reminded that all of us can see these transgressions against operating room cleanliness, perfect home maintenance. I try to ignore the nests and the dust, I scoop out the tissues and toss them in the trash without comment. If they don't see those flaws, they're lucky. If they do, they know they're there, they don't need me to point them out and make them feel bad about not being more on top of it.
People-watching with my mom is an unending episode of "What Not to Wear." Other people's houses (probably including mine) are full of decorating faux pas. There is no accounting for other people outside our family's bad taste. Even within the family, my mother would maintain that her version of the family aesthetic is the best. For years, I agreed with her when pressed for my opinion. I was constantly being drawn away from my examination of human evil (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Andersonville, All Quiet on the Western Front) to weigh in on whether these candles matched that tablecloth. And it was true. In the set of our tribe's interior design, my mother's was preferable to all the others. But, No. 1: I don't care that much about it, not enough to spend time or money on my own decor, and No. 2: if I did, I'd choose a palette less pastel-oriented and far less flowery. But I don't care.
And I don't want any chickens.

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