What is shabby elegance? In our case, our materialism is shabby, while our elegance is in living our lives fully, and deliberately.
The Doctor’s House
I have previously discussed where we live, and the beauty that surrounds us. When I mention my house, sometimes I wonder what people imagine a doctor’s house must be like. I think about so many of the doctors I know, and how large and richly appointed their homes are, with expensive furnishings, rooms laid out by interior decorators, surrounded by keenly-tooled landscapes, housing closets full of fine clothing, and attaching a large garage with two or more high-end automobiles. All of it has become cliché. MD = enormous income = opulent luxury. Hence, the doctor’s house.
Apparently, I didn’t get the memo. Our home is modest even by non-doctor standards, at about 2/3 the size of the average new U.S. home. We have maybe 5 pieces of new furniture in the house (two are bookshelves, one of them a highly-recommended vertical shelf; see picture below). There is hardly any art on the walls, and a lot of the art on display was done by the kids. We mow our own lawn… occasionally. The house has no closets (long story). Instead, we have three Ikea armoires (which came with the house) and three beat-up chests of drawers (which came with us). My wife actually prefers second-hand clothes, because they’re softer. We drive second-hand cars that sit out in the weather; mine is a 12 year-old Prius, and we are crossing our fingers that it will hold up until next fall.
We don’t have a TV (we had the box for watching movies, but it’s broken). We have a wine cave but no oven (another long story). The bathrooms have no cabinets nor built-in mirrors, not even medicine cabinets (even longer stories).
In addition, the kids and the beasts (sometimes the difference is subtle) have quite an impact on the old abode. One corner of our living room, right by the windows that overlook the lake, is ‘Yaya Land’. My daughter has lined the baseboards with her fairy house, a couple of foot stools and several small boxes, which are home to her small figurines and their tiny furniture (including stray pieces from a Peruvian chess set, giving her family of hamster figurines some conquistadors and native Americans to hang out with). She spends maybe an hour there every morning, playing with her toys, and imagining conversations and various outings and activities (the hamster family recently turned out stamp-sized pages of homework.)
What furniture we have suffers because of our kids and our pets (dog, cat, bearded dragon, hamster, guinea pig; and several others which have already passed over to the other side). The floors have deep scratches from slowly moved furniture and from our faster-moving dog, there are ink and crayon stains on the couches, and the kitchen table – we bought it used a few months ago, but hey it looked new – already has a ‘Magic: The Gathering’ card-sized patch where the finish and stain have been stripped off. My son was doing a project with acetone, and it soaked through the newspapers he had put down. Hardly the typical doctor’s house.
The one part of the house that looks like we are millionaires, is the view. Our property slopes steeply toward the aforementioned lake, and the view out of our back windows is spectacular.
Other than that, how could I possibly call my home ‘luxurious’?
Opulent Luxury, Comfortable Luxury
The word ‘luxury’ comes to us from the Latin word, luxus, ‘excess’. But excess can be used in different ways. There is comfortable luxury, and there is opulent luxury. It is the old artistic problem of ‘form vs function’: does good design in say, a chair, mean that it that it is visually attractive, and impressive? Or does it mean that it works well and is comfortable?
I argue that opulent luxury is largely for impressing other people. Comfortable luxury is for enjoying ourselves, our family, our friends, and our lives.
The Time Thief
When we make a lot of money, our first thought is to spend it on opulent luxury, in keeping up with the Joneses, and in trying to impress others. In fact, many people appear bewildered about spending their wealth for anything other than acquisition and decoration.
We never consider that our opulent luxury costs us much more than money; it robs us of our time, it robs us of lives. Expensive things need to be cleaned, insured, repaired, carefully maintained and protected – and then, after a decade or two, much of it must be replaced and updated. Our materialism even extends to our bodies: we lose so much of our lives and our enjoyment in dieting, exercising, and in undergoing repeated surgeries.1)A disclaimer: you’d never guess it from my appearance, but my wife is quite the looker, and she still has the figure of a 20 year-old. But her beauty is natural, other than Yoga and walking, both to relax, she doesn’t work at it. In fact, I discourage her from wearing makeup, she’s prettier without it.
Materialism is not often a good thing. Regarding opulent luxury, the 16th century Spanish playwright Fernando de Rojas put it well: “Riches do not make one rich, but busy; they do not create a master, but a steward. Rather than possess riches, men are possessed by them. Wealth has brought death to many and stolen pleasure from all…”2)Fernando de Rojas, Celestina. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Yale University Press, 2012.
Telling the Difference
I have a couple of tests for whether our possessions are for our personal comfort, or whether they are there to feed our materialism. First, imagine the car you would most like to own. Then imagine that tomorrow, it will be delivered to you, at no cost, with all taxes paid. It’s yours. How would you feel?
Now, imagine that when you get it, everyone in town, every wino, every teeny-bopper, and every little old lady, will get exactly the same car: the same color, the same detailing, the same options. The first time you take your pride and joy out on the road, every car you see will be exactly like it. Would you still want it?
Next, imagine your ideal home, as large as you want, with all of the furnishings and conveniences you can think of. Now, put it on a beautiful, but deserted, island. You can come and go whenever you like, go to work, do your shopping, and visit your friends. But your dream home will only be for you and your family, no one else will ever see it. Nevertheless, you still have to clean and maintain all of it. Do you still want it?
If you said ‘No’ to either of those (and I hope most of us would) then we might ask ourselves why we wanted that particularly car, or that particular house, in the first place.
I noted that the part of our house that is truly luxurious is the view out of our windows. It’s not important to us if no one else ever sees it, although we do enjoy that our friends and family enjoying relaxing and sharing it with us. We also don’t care if everyone else has exactly the same view. Well, actually I care, but only because when I visit friends, I want to experience different kinds of beauty. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t care if everyone lives with as much natural beauty as we do. In fact, I’d like it a great deal.
I have unusual priorities in practicing medicine, as well. Despite the years of education and training it took me, I’m not all that impressed with my MD. I do it well enough I suppose, and I’m glad when I can help someone. My professional passion, though, is writing. And so I work in quiet emergency rooms and clinics, which don’t pay as much as I could make elsewhere, but which give me time to write.
Of course, even a low-paid doctor, working part-time, can still make a fair amount of money. A lot of it we save and invest, as I am older father with a new family, and as I was near bankruptcy when I met my wife.3)Trying to save the world. Yet another long story. The bulk of our money is spent on family: music and art lessons, plays, books, day trips, fine dining with the kids once or twice a month.
And we travel. Every couple of years we take the kids overseas. But we are no sight-seers, we are serious tourists: for several month before we go, we read novels concerning the places we will visit, we read other books about the history and culture, and we watch classic movies that were shot on location in our destination.4)My kids love Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain. We watched those before our trip to Italy. We also watched A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was a hoot; and The Last Days of Pompeii, which was a stinker – beefcake in miniskirts, hoo-boy.
That’s us. Now, if you do an Internet search for ‘shabby elegance’ and look at the images, none of it will look like our house. What is elegant about a home full of second-hand, mismatched furniture? What is elegant about a home and yard that are only as neat as minimal standards of health and decency require? What is elegant about kids and animals scrambling around, habitually and notoriously disturbing the peace?
We certainly qualify as shabby. But where’s the elegance?
Personally, and emotionally, our home is comfortable luxury, it’s livable. People enjoy visiting us, because they can relax, they don’t have to worry about breaking or damaging anything. That’s what is elegant. For us, shabby elegance goes beyond the five senses. Our elegance addresses the comfortable luxury of our existence.
What is elegant about us, I would argue, is our priorities. Nietsche and quite a few other thinkers insisted that we should live our lives as if they were works of art. But not art as some heroic tableau, not as some snapshot of conquest and vanity. Rather, the art of life, and the elegance of it, should be a robust story. In retrospect, it should be an interesting history. And in the living of it, it should be a novel, something that we, as the authors of our own existence, write as we go. The artwork of our lives is not a static, polished furnishing. The art of a life should be a chronicle of who we are, the things we struggle for, and what we value.
That is the shabby elegance of our house. The house and the furniture are minimalist props through which the theatre of our lives, and the meaning of our work, take place. It is the elegance of a life lived, as Thoreau put it, deliberately.
Which, if you think about it, ain’t all that shabby.
Vertical bookcases courtesy of David A. Keeps and The L.A. Times.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||A disclaimer: you’d never guess it from my appearance, but my wife is quite the looker, and she still has the figure of a 20 year-old. But her beauty is natural, other than Yoga and walking, both to relax, she doesn’t work at it. In fact, I discourage her from wearing makeup, she’s prettier without it.|
|2.||↑||Fernando de Rojas, Celestina. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Yale University Press, 2012.|
|3.||↑||Trying to save the world. Yet another long story.|
|4.||↑||My kids love Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain. We watched those before our trip to Italy. We also watched A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was a hoot; and The Last Days of Pompeii, which was a stinker – beefcake in miniskirts, hoo-boy.|