Southern Living magazine has a dream house in every issue — photos of rooms splashed with color and furniture that beckons use, effortlessly livable yet exquisite. Best of all they have a baby blueprint laying out how everything fits together, room dimensions telling me if the kitchen was dreamy or perhaps there was a room to fashion into a library both capacious & cozy. I love the ones with a balcony or deck off the master, imagining myself curled in a chair sipping morning coffee or evening wine.
The cloud castles are fun to build, and there are times I’ll lull myself to sleep painting my dream bedroom in whatever mood I want to evoke. As I wake, I smile looking at my nightstand or more precisely the stack of books & the dregs of my glass of fizzy water”. I know it’s a stretch to imagine me having stacks of books and yet I do. The current stack includes: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Vowell), The Geography of Genius (Weiner), My Life on the Road (Steinem), and The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Lepore). Ok, there are also a couple of Booklists and School Library Journals for review, 2 picture books and a book of French poems…. There are just so many things to read! I want to enjoy and learn from them all.
What probably on a subconscious level not random at all, is how often my bedside stack ends up sharing a common thread. While Vowell and Weiner are similarly brilliant yet amusing, and Steinem and Lepore speak of female superheroes – that’s not the connection I discovered. In one aspect or another, all of these volumes are about “place”.
Place, or home, or that “room of one’s own”, stretches from the notion of personal space to a home, to a sense of nation, to the concept of global responsibility. The psychologist WH Ittelson said that privacy was “freedom from unwanted intrusion and the freedom to determine the place and time of communication”. Unless one does a full Garbo, solitude is only part of the picture – humans are social creatures. We build leaf bowers, paint caves, and erect castles so we can share our hospitality and protect our assets. How we define the parameters of home reflect our connections and our cultures.
For example, Eric Weiner’s romp through place and time, The Geography of Genius could be called, “What’s up in the Neighborhood”. He is one of a handful of writers that can connect place, people, and time stringing a random thread that illustrates the world’s interconnectedness. Weiner, Simon Winchester, the incomparable James Burke and to a degree Bill Bryson do this so beautifully that you find yourself at the end of one of their books marveling at the world’s complexity while reveling in its simplicity.
In this case, Weiner starts with Margaret Boden’s definition of creative genius, “someone who can create something new, surprising, and valuable”. He posits a notion that within places where there were outpourings of revolutionary thought – such as Athens, renaissance Florence, turn-of-the-century Vienna or even Silicon Valley – the very “air” of the place made people more creative. Is there something to the cultural notion of right time/right place? Take the time to dip into his delightful, provocative prose and breathe the air, feel the spark and wonder if your place brings that to you. Weiner’s conclusion is beautifully simple—“that creativity is a relationship that unfolds at the intersection of time and place”.
At points, I’m sure I’ve mentioned my deep, abiding love for Sarah Vowell. Her acerbic wit and pointed commentary on how people, place, and history converge reflect both her sense of the absurd and her deep love of America. Framing the story of the American Revolution in flashbacks from Lafayette’s triumphant 1824 tour of the United States. To put it in the perspective, as Vowell notes, when the venerable general landed in New York 80,000+ people met him at the docks out of 120,000 residents. It a bit of real world perspective she adds that when the Beatles arrived 4000 fans met them from a population of 7 million. With Hamilton on Broadway, fueling the story of the American Revolution and the awkward childhood of the Republic – Vowell’s contribution to the sense of place gives us how Mt. Vernon rooted Washington (to the astonishment of all, especially George of England), how France shaped and cautioned the American “experiment”, and the places we know as historical atlas dots breathe with remembered tang and color.
If Weiner welcomes us to the neighborhood, and Vowell describes making the recipe for a new nation, banging messily around the kitchen – Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road is the family room. Warm, inviting and by every definition making the “personal political” à la Kate Millet, she wanders through her life. Imagine curling up on the couch with an old friend, listening to her recount the events, the people, her stories of growing into the person she is. Saying good night and wandering up the stairs to your room, you find Jill Lepore’s Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman in the bedroom, flicks on a Lynda Carter teenage boy response in about a million guys. That is not, however, the point. That most intimate of places, which I repaint in dreams each night is the perfect place to talk about Lepore’s phenomenal read. Part biography, part cultural history and part paean to feminism – Secret History opens the door not only for a discussion of comics and the gloriousness/objectification/depredations in Wonder Woman’s patriotic yet very well ventilated clothing, but also to Margaret Sanger, the “lost” feminists of the turn of the century, women’s sexuality and struggles with work-life balance. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Marston, known as the inventor of the lie detector test created the heroine with a feminist-ish mindset. Although to be fair, one of his impetuses in promoting women’s equality was his notion that there were 4 emotions – dominance, compliance, inducement, and submission – and in his private life S&M was way more than a Rihanna song. In other words, women needed to be free to be more than submissives. Maybe, not quite the way I would define feminism – but hey it got him there.
The girls and I have a lovely apartment where the rain sings against the windows, the train lullabies us to sleep, and we can hear church bells & laughter echoing down the street. As our journeys continue, our lives on the road – we will make new places – intimate and public that we can color to our liking, with chairs comfy enough to read more stacks of books.
- Brick House (the Commodores) – of course, the lead off hitter should be this funk anthem. Going with our secret history theme, while the band jammed to create the melody/rhythms – while ostensibly William King wrote the lyrics, it was later revealed that his wife, Shirley Hanna-King should get the byline
- Valley Vista (Wendy & Lisa) – part of the Revolution that formed a band – like so many fostered in the incubator of Paisley Park. This song is about Wendy’s home on yes, Valley Vista – and it encompasses all that longing of past & present – “behind the war, our family had its own secret place”, “now I know I’m not there…”.
- A Kiss to Build a Dream On (Louis Armstrong) – every house needs a foundation, and kisses are better than most. You may recognize some of the Hammerstein sound, not with Rogers – this he created with Messrs.’. Lalmar and Ruby. It’s one of those strolling songs where Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice asks you to walk with him.
- In my Own Little Corner (from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella) – another from the masters, and I adore Julie Andrew’s version. It is one of the loveliest depictions of one’s place unconstrained by the physical…. plus all of her imagined adventures sound delightful and romantic – implausible, yet wildly attractive.
- Shelter (Lone Justice) – just as a note, Maria McKee’s voice could make anyone happy – for me it flashes back to sitting on a porch swing on a muggy, summer afternoon – hanging with friends, and listening to “cowpunk pop rock” as this has been defined…. We debated the merits of music, movies, and anything about which one could have a choice.
- Come on Up to the House (Sarah Jarosz) – normally I love originals and Tom Waits’ growly renditions are no exception – but, omg – listen to this cover. She has this driving, pulsing rhythm that lifts and transports you pretty much anywhere she wants to bring you. And how lucky are we? She’s only 25!
- There’s a Spy in the House of Love (Was (not Was) or Animal Logic) – in one of those lovely bits of synchronicity these 2 bands came out with same-titled songs, each with a kick ass hook – and neither reference Anaïs Nin, which is what I thought when I saw the title. Both play with words in ways that would make her proud – “Gathering clues to be used in the war of the affections/I am a spy in the house of love” or “I had dreams/They’ve been laid to waste/I lost the time/And I lost the taste/I need him now/To meet me face to face/In the house of love”, Was (not Was) and Animal Logic, respectively.
- Our House (Madness or CSNY) – Another that carries that same name/different melody is Our House — and it’s a classic whether you like the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version or you prefer that of Madness. Each evokes memories of childhood porches, and dinner smells wafting across a yard calling you to supper louder than your mom from the back porch.
- Take me Home Tonight (Eddie Money with Ronnie Spector) – another throwback song, it was a comeback for both Eddie Money & Ronnie Spector. There were thoughts of having someone else sing the “Be my Baby” part — but Money was insistent on Ms. Spector. This is one of those Saturday night cookout, block party songs that make you smell mown grass, and hearing ice rattle as drinks are pulled from its cool embrace.
- The Bed’s too Big without You (Police) – I love how in his love fest over the song, critic Chris True enthuses that the song never gets boring even when its just drums and bass. It’s sad, it’s punk & new wave and it asks you to look at the relationship through the window, smudged a bit — so it’s like referenced pain.
- We’ll Sing in the Sunshine (Gale Garnett) – one of those gentle — ‘best of the 60s, 70s and 80s’ kind of songs — New Zealander/Canadian Gale Garnett’s highest charting hit, was only one of the things the renaissance woman could do – writing, acting and of course, music. Going back to that gentle song trope, in my stretched housing metaphor — if you listen to the lyrics, it’s about renting. She sings of a woman joyously embracing the now, and asking her sweetheart to remember those pleasures…if/when she leaves. I’ve had debates on whether this is a depressing or uplifting song — is she ripping out his heart or sharing adventures, 2 whole people making the most of every second… and then there’s the friend who says the woman in the song has a year to live, so the song is her goodbye. I don’t like that explanation at all.
- Like a House Needs a Door (Sarah Humphreys) – Knowing she collaborates with fellow Aussie Kasey Chambers just makes me love her more. This song reminds me of the south (I know Australia is south, but I’m talking my south). One picture always paints itself against my eyes — heart pine hardwood floors with sun diamonds splotching the floor as sheer curtains billow in the morning breeze, summer green smells following the breeze, and somewhere in another room music plays.
- Dreams of the Everyday Housewife/He thinks He’ll Keep Her (Glen Campbell & Mary Chapin Carpenter) – still thinking of the shiny hardwoods and all the chores involved in the reality house, somehow I don’t have to vacuum when I’m dreaming of my perfect house. These two songs juxtaposed against each other almost bookend 2nd wave feminism. Steinem, ok? In Campbell’s lovely song, “She picks up her apron in little girl-fashion/As something comes into her mind/Slowly starts dancing remembering her girlhood/And all of the boys she had waiting in line/Oh, such are the dreams of the everyday housewife/You see everywhere any time of the day/An everyday housewife who gave up the good life for me”. Her domestication is neither painful nor unexpected — the past is just nostalgia, not regret. On the other hand, released a quarter of a century later, Mary CC’s song argues that when you become the everyday housewife, you sometimes become invisible, “Everything runs right on time, years of practice and design/Spit and polish till it shines. He thinks he’ll keep her/Everything is so benign, safest place you’ll ever find/At least until you change your mind. He thinks he’ll keep her”. She argues that life isn’t about giving up ones’ self for another and living in a remembered dream.
- Little Room (White Stripes) – the White Stripes and I have an interesting history. They have no idea who I am — but they served as a gateway drug for an awful lot of cool music. Jack White is a very talented man, who is quite aware of his own talent — not a bad thing in an industry that smacks down 1000 bands for every one that’s a success. In other words, I liked them — they blew up, and I didn’t like them — and I listened again, and rediscovered my appreciation.
- Looking for a Place to Shine (from Nashville) – one of my guilty pleasures, if there’s a prime time show that features music — I’m there. I may end up playing catch up at the end of the season, but that’s ok. While not generally Bach sonatas, or Lennon/McCartney collaborations, they often have catchy little numbers with delightful lyrics (maybe/often better than the dialogue). One of the houses in which I lived had a Disney dwarf kind of balcony — but if you stood on or looked over it — you could see the fireworks at the minor league baseball field. Standing in the dark, watching the lights, “Like fireworks shooting into the sky/I wanna color the dark with the light./Like a diamond, sitting on a ring/I’m just a girl that wants to be seen/Every time I’m looking for a place to shine”.
- The House is a Rockin’ (SRV & Double Trouble) — this cut from “In Step”, his next to last album, is the perfect hospitality song. I used to throw lots of dinners and parties and in my head — this song would always start as the doorbell began ringing, “Kick off your shoes start losin’ the blues/This old house ain’t got nothin’ to lose/Seen it all for years start spreadin’ the news/We got room on the floor come on baby shake sumpin’ loose”.
- This Ole’ House (Rosemary Clooney) – Kind of the inverse of SRV, this is about an empty house/body remembering its celebrations & people as it sheds its earthly bonds. I love Rosemary Clooney and I love the way she treats the song — but there’s a cover (is it a cover if it’s the composer?) with Stuart Hamblen singing the melody and Thurl Ravenscroft (the Grinch!) doing the bass line. It is utterly joyous.
- I’m Fixing a Hole (the Beatles) – musically this song is brilliantly complex and very simple. I always liked it because it never asked you to figure out its metaphors. It’s creation & chaos (McCartney may have trademarked that?). My favorite line and quite apt, runs “I’m painting my room in the colourful way” as falls into the chorus”, And when my mind is wandering/There I will go/And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right/Where I belong I’m right/Where I belong”.China Doll (Bruce Hornsby) — A bit like Suzanne Vega’s Luka, it’s an amazing piece of music with Pat Metheny guitar, and Phil Collins doing back up — it reminds you there are lots of rooms, in lots of houses, some having stories you’ll never know….”Put on your strong face when they’re in the room/Can’t show signs of weakness, an unspoken rule/Put on your best face, act like nothing’s wrong/We can be so helpless, helpless and so strong”.
- Hot House (Charlie Parker with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet) If you want to fall in love with jazz, play this song. That should be on the packaging. “Bird & Diz” soar and dip and syncopate, that brings you to a smoky bar — or a lovely study with wing chairs and an indisputably kick-ass sound system. In one of the great pleasures of my life I got to see Dizzy Gillespie play in a room probably the size of half my apartment. In was a little jazz club in DC and his saxophonist mistook my companion for Chris Eliot the comedian and put us in the front, despite our repeated efforts to dissuade him. Luckily there were only about 15 people in the place, so it wasn’t a thing.
- Pink Houses (John Mellencamp) – Not possible to talk about dream houses without this one. Although my dream house is never pink…. the tulip tree blooming in front is, but not the house. While some argue the song is dated, that notion of community and “throwing your hand up” whether the person is a friend or stranger – wiggles around about trying to get comfortable in a digital world. It will, because Weiner notes people live in connection with one another.
I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace –> Gaston Bachelard