25 November 2006

A Box by Any Other Name Is Still Just a Box

My friend, Lesa, sent me a link to the NY Times 19 October 2006 article titled, "The Imperfectionist" by Ginia Bellafante.

It's about Dan Ho.

At age 40, after a divorce, he decided to reduce his possessions down to 55 items.

The article says he is "motivated neither by debt nor by environmentalism but simply by a compulsion to unburden himself...".

At first glance, he seems to match up with the profile of the one laid out in the urban dictionary's definition of urban camping, where one unburdens himself as a sort of penance at the end of a long-term relationship.

But under the surface, this man's unique path runs from being a homeless nine-year-old in Guam, as a result of a typhoon, to being a successful Michigan restaurant owner who built a big Prairie School style house.

He acquired things and added on to the house until one day he suffered a seizure and his whole viewpoint changed.

There were no lasting physical effects from the attack. He simply blacked out for 20 minutes, woke up and lost interest in his lifestyle.

He came to think that style is over-rated and he detests the cultural phenomenon of trade-up-manship.

The man who now only owns 47 items of clothing and a backpack, suitcase, television, computer, bath towel, single set of sheets, toothbrush and bottle of witch hazel said,
"“You build a house, then you put in a pool,"” he said. "“Then you need a peony garden. Then you watch ‘Martha Stewart’ and you realize a peony garden needs a fence. Then you think, ‘I should also have a rose garden, too, and if I'’m going to have a rose garden, I have to have 30 varieties.’ I once bought a $3,600 cedar tree because, you know, I needed something for the corner to create a transition from the oak tree to the anemone because the sedum on the brick walk just wasn'’t going to cut it. People think like that, and I did."”
He wrote a book called Rescue From Domestic Perfection and he has a TV program on the Discovery channel where he talks people out of "needless redecorating."

His core philosophy, described in the article, resonates with me.

He says that no one seems to be happy with the house they have. If he says of someone's new place, "Wow, this is great," then they say, "Well, it's O.K. for now."

He says that the attention paid to renovating, reorganizing, building and rebuilding "distracts us from the more demanding work of becoming better partners, caretakers and friends."

I like it when he complains that style is unstudied, but I don't like it when he says, "We abide by all of these prescriptions that are essentially visual."

Yikes. For a person who defines her individuality by playing among the visual elements of the world, I'm not so excited by his suggestion to set my table with newspaper, or place a rubber ducky on a plain wooden table, or hang a loop of twine from the bathroom sink to hold the toilet paper.

He says that, "Candles don'’t set a mood, people do." But I think that candles AND people set the mood. I live alone and I light candles every evening.

I think it rather comes down to the idea that we each have a core identity and that we are not the sum total of our things, or our relationships, or our careers, etc.

Shouldn't our 'style' be how we genuinely express ourselves in each of those contexts?

Maybe we crave the disconnect when we find a fatal flaw with our ability to express our identity in those arenas?

Does something trigger a panicky waking moment where we realize that we need to cut loose the connections to rediscover our core identity, to find ourselves back again?

I wonder if it is possible to never have that moment? To be blinded by routine? To check off all the boxes? To not worry about expressing our unique individuality because we keep ourselves busy? To not engage because we keep ourselves comfortable?

The appeal of this nomadic "being at home anywhere" idea is that the expression of our personal style doesn't change when the context changes.

It's the practice of knowing ourselves, trimmings or no trimmings.

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