The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 5, 2015

Down Home Homes — The Flamboyant Cowboy Vernacular of Chip and Joanna Gaines

Why do we go home?  I mean, why do we bother?  In New York City, given the price of an apartment, most of us live in confined spaces with the purpose of being able to fall out of bed and hit the clubs, the trendiest restaurants, and most importantly work.  We live in New York to work.  Home is an afterthought ,a place one arrives late at night and which one leaves early in the morning.  Life is at the gym.  Life is in the office.  Life is at the amazing cultural event where we saw the cultural icon and actually said hello to her, and she nodded in a vague recognition — yes, she nodded at us!  Home is a closet with a bed that pulls out.  It is a refrigerator more for wine than for food.  It is a window that shows a brick wall in front of it but which lets the light in.  If we are wealthy enough to own a space in New York where others might be invited for a gathering, the chief purpose of the space is to impress others, not to be a great comfort.

The rest of America, particularly the South, understands home quite differently.  When Southerners go home, they go to a place that comforts.  Home is a place where food falls off the fork into the mouth of the laughing family.  Home is a place where the couch gives a hug to the potato. Home embodies a set of values that work could not contain, however worthy that work is.  Home is the place in the South where facades come down, where real conversations happen, where some powerful truth is lived.  It is not a hangar for a plane itching to take off and away.  The adventure of life happens in the Southern home, not outside of it.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

Into this philosophy we see inserted the design discourse of Chip and Joanna Gaines, renovators and decorators unapologetically from Waco, Texas, not New York.  They have restored a lovely farm for their growing family in a style that embraces the American ranch house traditions of Texas, the celebration of cowboy and Rodeo, of football elevated to sacrament, of Lone Star and encouraging scripture rendered into logo as well as sentiment.  They understand the black light velvet posters of Elvis and Jesus that somebody’s granddaddy put above his work bench out back.  They understand the room turned into a shrine for a team.  They understand Indian rugs, bull heads on walls, wagon wheels, and saddles as art pieces.  That said — they reject all that is tacky in the aforementioned design choices.  They understand that all those choices, while idiosyncratically Texan, rendered the home-owners provincial and narrow-minded.  They reject the stereotypes of architectural Texan sprawl and interior design that looks like the owners of the home are insular hicks.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

Instead they remove popcorn from the ceilings in Waco.  They expose brick and original beams.  They do the thing that Willie Nelson famously sang in an anti-litter campaign long ago — they treat Texas like someone they love, all the houses in Texas that they touch like a place of love. Instead of being a cautionary tale of tastelessness — remember that Willie Nelson warned mommas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys — they transform people’s homes into welcome embraces of Texan personality without any of the Texan stereotypes.   Instead of bull heads mounted on walls, we see antlers transformed into chandeliers.  Instead of a wagon wheel coffee table, we see a kitchen that uses a vintage tin sign over a farmhouse sink.  Everything is big in Texas, and the Gaines keep it that way — all the sofas are ample, the chairs wide-armed and overstuffed, and yet the rooms feel airy and uncrowded because in their Texas, less is more. ranch-house long tables become family dining room statements under farm lamps.

elegance without pretense

elegance without pretense

This decor is not ostentatious in the way that a New York townhouse can be ostentatious, and neither is it a Bauhaus-inflected austerity, as a penthouse may be in the City.  Rather, the Gaines’ welcome us home at the end of every episode of their HGTV Show Fixer Upper, and the design has the aspiration of a New South that keeps the comfortable but eliminates the ignorant, that keeps the hay but makes nobody a hayseed.   When they fix up, they repair our broken American dreams.  They somehow eliminate bigotry along with rotting floorboards (the Gaines’ are a mixed-race couple with a non-sexist-yet-traditional marriage partnership).  They make home a place a modern person can go to without being painted into a corner.

They are why I like living in the South, why apartment life, though exciting, can not easily tempt me back again, and why I want to curl up with a good book on a large couch and pet the cat while I look out into a warm space filled with light. Let us aspire as their design aspires, to be chic without pretense. May we all be so fixed up and so rehabilitated as the old ranch houses they gut and remodel.

December 22, 2011

Yes, Bubba, there is a Santa Claus

There is the perfectly tasteful Dixie Christmas (see above)....

There is Christmas, and then there’s Dixie Christmas.  There are entire towns whose displays are utterly tasteful.  I think particularly of Oxford, Mississippi, where the decorations are classic, and the carefully appointed historic homes are utterly elegant — lots of red velvet ribbons, evergreen branches and tasteful white lights.  Vicksburg has a lovely tradition, where they place candles along a number of roads in bags (think Martha Stewart craft project, not a fraternity practical joke), and people drive down the streets without their lights on at five miles an hour, following the path of these bags of light.  That is far better than any Far Rockaway household’s dancing santa doll.  However, there is the other Dixie Christmas, the one that is fraught with reasons that Jesus cannot be held responsible for the season.

Understand that there were plenty of tacky iterations of Dominic the Christmas Donkey in New York City, but there is a kind of a boundless high-end rococo kitsch that is entirely unironic and completely unconscious expressions of tastelessness that cost money in the South.

These are best typified (look for reruns) by HGTV’s astonishing special Donna Decorates Dallas.  If the title of this show reminds us of that 1970s porn flick Debbie Does Dallas, so much the better, as it really is a triple penetration of bad taste over at Donna’s high-end Dallas clients’ houses.

I suppose I am a taste class bigot.  I have no problem understanding the person who has limited choices because of limited income and decorates as best they can with the Dollar Store tchotchkes they can afford, but when the rich, and the smug, and the altogether Republican, display a phenomenal lack of good judgment in design choices when they are willing to spend enough money on their expensive abominations to feed a dozen hungry children in the Ozarks for a year, and these are the same people who will probably vote for candidates who will cut the school lunch programs in their area, I am morally as well as aesthetically offended.

In a season where we should be remembering the homeless — no room at the inn for the Holy Family — when people turn to Donna, she offers the gilding of the lily in so many iterations.  Why not hang animal print ornaments on your two-story Christmas tree?  I am not kidding.  Why not have a  nativity scene where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are decked out as if they were headed for Mardi Gras?

...and then there's Dixie Christmas with animal print ornaments, for which this woman will charge you an arm and a leg.

Donna and her two daughters look like ex-Cowboy Cheerleaders.  Each is blonde and pretty in that particularly expensive Texas way that is lovely without being elegant.  One of the daughters had trouble identifying the figures in the nativity scene — and Donna said they should go back to church.  I agree.  Donna and her daughters decorate a peacock colored Christmas tree.  Donna seems to decorate everything in peacock colors, including herself. See her photo here.  The tree reminds one of nothing more than Priscilla Presley‘s bad taste in decorating Graceland — there is a peacock room there, and the tree is as bad as the one in Memphis, with nothing to do with the lovely preening bird but a plastic imitation.

People pay her a lot of money at her Dallas Boutique called That’s Haute to do this kind of thing for them, and they think they have bought something that makes them look refined.  Admittedly she hasn’t used false advertising in  the name of the boutique.  What is haute, after all?  Is it haute couture or haute vulgarite?  She doesn’t tell us, and people who have clearly never learned that bedazzling doesn’t make a person look wealthier, only more desperate, can’t tell.  Donna is convincingly former homecoming queenly in her sales pitch, so I guess the real housewives of Dallas don’t know that they are getting a sequin tiara instead of a diadem for an imprimatur in taste.

During the rest of the year, this is just part of the conspicuous consumption of the filthy rich — the Enron executives who cashed in before the fallout, the Halliburton shareholders who have profited from the blood of G.I.s — you know, the American dream, Republican Texan style.  It seems crueler, however, when this same esthetic and  philosophy is applied at Christmas to the veneration of the man whose first words of ministry indicated that he had come to bring good news to the poor.  Instead of the soup kitchen, this money went toward things to be torn down in a month, and they don’t even confer the nobility that the buyers hoped they would to onlookers.  They remind me of the homeless, the hungry, and the underserved in our country and how utterly contemptible the attitudes of Donna Moss and her clients are to these honest people.

There is an old Latin maxim:  “De gustibus, non est disputandum” which means, “There is no disputing matters of taste.”  However, in Christmas decorations, it occurs to me one might say, “De gustibus, non est habenandum.”  The translation roughly would be, “There is no having good taste,” at least around here.  I want to embroider this sentiment in peacock colors on throw pillows and put these words on the sofas of all of  Donna’s clients.  I’ll tell them that the phrase comes from the Bible, and they won’t question this or look it up.

Again, this is not everyone’s Christmas taste down South.  Some people are tasteful and remember the poor.  I find that these two qualities tend to go together, too.  Tacky is as tacky does, it seems, down here.

Let’s remember the poor this season.  Let’s be grateful for things that cannot be made with a glue gun — friendships, relationships.  Peace on Earth, even in the gun-toting South.  Goodwill toward men, even toward women.  God rest ye, preferably in a tastefully appointed room, but God rest ye, wherever you are.

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

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