Thursday, June 26, 2008

The way we live now

I just finished reading Do the Windows Open, a collection of stories by Julie Hecht, who truly understands the trials of modern American life: the awfulness of florescent lighting and stuffed animals; the despair one feels when Easter decorations start to appear in stores. The narrator, who is never named, shares many of my own neuroses. I'm just like her, only not a macrobiotic vegetarian. The consumption of meat does not offend me. Or does it? Actually, meat-eating does offend me when it's people at Disneyland eating entire fried turkey legs. Isn't it bad enough to be at Disneyland without having to see people eating giant fried turkey legs? I could make an entire casserole out of a turkey leg.

I once had a relative named Auntie. That is the only name I knew for her. She was my grandfather's aunt, and died before I was born. One day my grandfather shook his head and said, “Auntie just wasn't made for the modern world.” I feel the same way about myself, which is why I enjoyed Do the Windows Open so much, whose narrator, like me, can't do many of the things that modern people take for granted or even find pleasant or desirable.

I realized there are many, many things I “can't” do. I can't drink tea out of inferior-quality porcelain. I can't make left turns onto busy streets. I can't shop on Saturdays and I can't shop at Sears on any day. I can't use a drive-through window. I can't live in a house built after 1940. Once, I lived in a house that was built in 1967. I lived in it for eleven years and it crushed my spirit. I can't live in a suburb. I lived in a suburb once. It coincided with living in the 1967 house. It was a dreadful experience, but it taught me a valuable lesson: it is perilous to raise one's children in the suburbs. And yet, there are people who believe that the suburbs are the ideal, indeed the only, place to raise one's children.

I can't shop for electronics and I can't be in the presence of too much mass-produced clothing at one time. I can't go to amusement parks on hot summer days. I can't watch children's sports. I can't drink water out of anything but glass, indeed, I can't drink anything out of plastic.
I can't squeeze in front of people to get to a seat in the middle of the row in a crowded theater. This eccentricity got me kicked out of the Walker Upper Elementary school moving up ceremony this year. I arrived late and the only seats were way up in the balcony, in the middle of rows which were guarded by very large people who all gave me hostile looks as I groped my way through the dark, looking for a seat. So I stood in the wide, deep recess between the balconies--I really took up almost no space at all--but some man, a fire marshal or something, told me I couldn't stand there. I explained about not being able to squeeze past large, hostile people, but he clearly thought I was being irrational, so I had to sit on an ottoman in the vestibule for a while until I could steal an aisle seat from one of the many people who exited the building during the middle of the ceremony.

Obviously, I can do any of these things, but doing them comes with such a profound sense of despair that I try to avoid them at all costs. I even pack my own tea cup when I am traveling, so that my lips need never touch Corelle and I will make a right turn and find a place to turn around rather than try to make an impossible left turn. I am always somewhat in awe of people who attempt the impossible left turn, and yet also slightly contemptuous.

If you find the modern world is hard and you can't understand the things other people do, then you will probably like Julie Hecht's stories and her delightfully neurotic narrator.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly about the spirit-crushing nature of post-1940 houses. Fortunately, my city teems with 100-year-old homes. "Character" isn't quite strong enough to describe the difference.

  2. I 100% with you on those nasty turkey legs at Disney. The first time I saw that I almost gagged.

  3. New houses - especially if they're called "homes" - depress me. Plastic glasses were useful when my kids were young but now it's glass-only. Left turns are an unfortunate necessity for me because I hate taking "the long way." Ha. Is that contempt I'm receiving or just indigestion?

    I just read an article about Tasha Tudor (who died recently) and had no idea she was so immersed in the past.

    "The modern world held few charms for Tasha Tudor, the eccentric and adored children's book illustrator who died last week at the age of 92. In both her life and her work, Tudor exuded an unabashed nostalgia for a vanished time that she never knew first hand. She was born in 1915, but was so intensely fond of the 1830s that she sought almost her whole life to pursue the rural manners of that era.

    Decades before it was fashionable to go "back to the land," for instance, Tudor was raising four children in a New England farmhouse with no electricity or running water. She cooked on a wood-burning stove, wove her own fabrics, and dressed in the style of the early 19th century in long home-sewn calico dresses and starched white bonnets. She played the dulcimer, made dolls and marionettes, and liked to go about barefoot."

    Full article here:

  4. I'm totally checking out this book--we are soul sisters. I "can't do" a lot of those things as well--malls, crowded places like theme parks, franchise restaurants, buying collectibles, eating fast food or microwave dinners. Thanks for the title--and I related to your post.

  5. Sorry if I find your post a bit silly, but it is. Every generation builds on the one before, developing new technologies and innovations. Why do you decry the technological advances of the 20th century but not those that came before it? Certainly, porcelain has not been around since the dawn of time--it was an innovation in its time, yet you praise its arrival but poo-poo plastic? Your aesthetics seem pretty arbitrary. Your lament of the modern world is based on what? Standardization? You wouldn't feel special if you had to live in a tract home? Well, here's a newsflash--along with the tract home, the advances of the modern world have more than doubled your life span and reduced infant mortality rate from 50% to less than .01%. So chalk up the need to standardize the necessities of life to the fact that, well, you're actually alive along with billions of other people competing for air on this planet.

    I'll give you one thing though, water does taste better out of glass--especially when you need to wash down that turkey leg.