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Buying a House: Good Enough

Since I last posted on the house, I have not had a spare moment to blog because I was painting every day but two and on those days, I was celebrating retiring colleagues or attending graduation.  So phew.  Last night, after 79 hours of work on the house (yes, I’m counting), we finished the painting project.  Just in time for the floor guy to come this morning at 7:30 AM.  I’m exhausted.  My hands hurt.  I’m glad that part is over.  We know we’re still going to have to do some touching up after the floor guy leaves.  But in all, we tried to have high standards.  We tried to do better than good enough.

When we first move to Indiana, a friend gave me a book: Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.  The author, James H. Madison, points to how Hoosiers have a general mentality of “good enough.”  I think there’s a legend that settlers moving westward stopped in Indiana instead of continuing westward, because, you know, “good enough.”  Since we learned about the “good enough” mentality, we see it everywhere.  We vowed that in our home, things would be otherwise.

Then we got to work.  We did two coats of paint in the living and dining room, and maybe you can still see a little bit of blue.We pulled painting tape off the ceiling and some paint came off with it.  We painted the wooden joiners in the corners and then wondered if we should have left them bare wood.   We got a little trim paint on the wall in certain places. We decided not to do a second coat in closets because we didn’t have time.  We discovered one closet is wall-papered and so we just let it be altogether.  We realized another wall is wallpapered and covered with paint over the wallpaper.  We painted over it anyway.  We don’t want to have an unfinished closet.  We don’t want to paint over wallpaper.  But we didn’t have the time to do otherwise — we needed the job to be done by this morning.  We started to understand why people settle for good enough.

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But that’s not quite right.  I think–now I’ve only been a homeowner for two weeks, so I say this tentatively–but I think that homeowning is a matter of being aware of a whole long list of things you want to improve and figuring out how to order the list.  “Good enough” thinking would cross the things off the list, but I see it rather as moving it down lower on the list.  I want to rip the wallpaper off in the closet and redo it.  It looks like it will come off pretty easily.  But I had to get the painting done in those rooms, and that project would have taken over.  I want to take the wallpaper off in the next room, the wallpaper that has been painted over but looks in otherwise good shape, but again, the rooms had to get painted.  I’m not going to go back next week and rip it off the wall now that I’ve painted.  We’ll see how long before it starts to become annoying and we move it up the list.  But the other things on the list aren’t restricted to what needs to be done in the house–higher on the list is my own work and research.  I’d rather do that than have a pretty closet.

Francesca Tronchin, art historian and classicist, works on the notion that people’s interior design work is “aspirational autobiography of the owner,” which she finds in everything from Roman architecture to Graceland.  I’ve been thinking about this idea and the “good enough” mentality and living in Indiana.  It’s clear to me that Tronchin is right and that my distaste and anxiety about “good enough” is about my own concerns about how my house reflects on who I am.  I know this because I make these associations with the houses I have lived in.  It’s not even that the commodity reflects on how much purchasing power you have in a way that shows how powerful you are because you control labor, the source of wealth that is captured in commodities.  It’s that the commodity reflects and captures your taste, your very superior standards.  The house as the commodity says something about what you can put up with (“good enough”) and what you absolutely cannot.

But this investment in taste is a trap, I think.  It plays right into a neoliberal notion that you are human capital and that as human capital you need to be worthy of social investment and the way your house is designed shows that as a human being you are worthy of respect (which is social investment).  Every design magazine is producing the anxiety that you are probably not worthy of respect if you aren’t buying this paint (that other one is just “good enough”), hanging these curtains just so (hire professionals so that you don’t mess it up), matching your bedspread to the paint trim just so.  If for a long time the home has been considered the sphere of the private, both in the modern sense of the place of freedom and the classical sense of the place removed from the public eye, home design and investments in home design seem to point to the real impossibility of their being any private.  The private space is not a place in which you retreat from the world.  Even here, you are putting yourself on display.  This eclipse of the private sphere is what Arendt says totalitarianism accomplishes.  You show yourself to be who you are not in public action and discourse, but in the lengths to which you will go, the amounts that you will spend, to forego “good enough.”  The only resistance is to embrace the “good enough.”  Dang it.

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