Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gettin' Used To It


[Editor's Note: Another "What's New" entry from 2005. Man, that a lot of words for a place usually reserved for: Sale on benches!]
{Author's Note: There is no editor}

Let's talk about gettin' used to it. To be more specific: becoming inured to it. What's the "it" I'm referring to? Well, that's up to you. I'll tell you what "it" means to me, you tell me what "it" means to you. Because what I'm talking about, is becoming inured to some aspect of modern life, blind to its charms or warts, because it is common, and unexceptional. And there are two dangers in this gettin' used to it.

The first problem is ingratitude. Our lives are transformed, for the good, by the march of events, but precisely because these developments are ubiquitous and useful, we don't notice them. You'd notice them plenty if they disappeared, though. Generally, the useful stuff we take for granted is the stuff we love to hate. I hate my cellphone, you say. I hate Home Depot, you say. Add your own example here, it's not difficult, even if you're of tender age, because the march of events these days is swift. Now try to imagine life before those items. I hate people talking on the cell phone in the car, many say. Well, I remember before we had cellphones to yak on in the car. And I remember that car breaking down. In the dead of winter. In the dead of night. On a deserted highway. And to this day, over 25 years later, I remember that 5 mile walk, wearing only clothing suitable for the car heater full blast, not the winter full blast, to the nearest place I could get in out of the cold.

I like cell phones.

The second problem is when our lives are diminished, but it creeps up on us, and we don't see it because it is lost in the landscape of everyday life. We become used to it without considering it. And by the time you can consider it dispassionately, and critically, and point your finger at it, and make gagging noises, it has become ubiquitous, and replaced something else that used to be ubiquitous, and was better. And you're left looking like a crank if you point it out to anyone.

Now, you've hired me to be your official crank, if you're reading this daily essay, and I do not wilt from the responsibility. It's my job to notice things, I guess. My furniture is not a fly stuck in amber, I hope, because what is good in design is often timeless, and what people call improvement is sometimes just tinkering. So our perspective is everything. We can read history books, and add to the perspective of our own experience, and read current events, and find out about contemporary experience, or we can read science fiction, and fantasize about what we might have handy to abuse and take for granted in the future.

So I'll tell you what I noticed, the very first time I saw it, and saw it immediately for what it was: An eyesore that has become a regular part of American life, and made me a crank:


That, ladies and gents, is what I call a snout house. And what a snout house is, is a glorified garage, with a house stapled onto its ass end. To me, it's the architectural version of a plumber with his britches slung too low walking backwards, bent over, all the time. And I hate it like poison. And I hate its designer, and builder. And I hate the realtor who's selling it, even though I don't know him, and I hate his car, and his sweater, and his eating habits, and his molecules.

No, not really. We don't hate anybody here at Sippican. But I don't like snout houses.

I remember like it was yesterday the first time I saw a snout house. Because it wasn't one of those things that snuck up on me, really; the first time I saw it I was fascinated and repelled, and knew I was going to be stuck with it for a good long time.

I was living in Los Angeles at the dawn of the eighties, and would go to the cavernous and elderly movie theaters there, because I liked the gaudy interiors, the big screens, and the air conditioning. Mostly the air conditioning. And I wasn't all that fussy about what was on the screen, really. And it was beastly hot one day, and we went to a matinee of E.T. the Extraterrestial. The movie theater seemed empty as you entered, but that was just because all the patrons were too short to show over the top of the chairs, and it was a zoo in there the whole time. We didn't care. The boisterous laughter of children never really grates, at least on me. We sat in the back row, in the blessed coolness, the movie a trifle, but not bad, and Elliot rides his bike down a cul-de-sac completely fronted by garage doors. And I was in shock. Is this the alien part, I thought? This Martian streetscape? Then I realized that Spielberg probably chose some Simi Valley subdivision to film at, thinking he was being wry, and pointing out his idee fixee, the "soullessness" of suburbia, and unwittingly doing infinitely more to help make suburbia unattractive than the people he looked down his nose at, by giving free advertising to the snout house.

And since then, the snout house has moved inexorably eastward, like architectural locusts, and has consumed the landscape from sea to shining sea.

I don't share the beautiful people's revulsion for suburbia. It's just decent people making a living for themselves, and maybe having a patch of grass to play touch football on. Many people do hate suburbia, the whole idea of it, and wish we were all living in concrete urban human dovecotes, where they can keep their eye on us. Me, I like looking out the window and seeing a little statue of St Francis, surrounded by ferns and flowers and squirrels; it's better than the fish store dumpster I used to look at when I lived in a more urban setting. But that's just me, perhaps. The snout house gives these detractors the ammo they need to rename your home and its brethren "sprawl" and attempt to pass laws against it. And I don't want to help them.

Now let's look at the forces that gave birth to the snout house. Because you're just a crank, if you say: I don't like it, so there.

People's lives have changed in the last fifty years, and they don't rest on ceremony as much as they used to. And my very own business is based on a kind of informality of decoration that also applied to houses, snout houses too. We don't have two parlors, with antimaccassars on the furniture, because we don't greet pedestrian callers that way any more. And the car must be acknowledged. The car is another one of those things people love to hate, that's useful beyond all reckoning. And people use it to go everywhere from their suburban nest. And you can put all the pedestrian amenities in the world in the average suburban neighborhood, it won't tempt people to walk anywhere. There's nowhere to walk to.

Americans have become extremely informal these days, in clothes, titles, homes, amusements, everything. Look at a picture of a baseball game from the 1940s. Every single man in the stands is wearing a suit and a fedora hat. And baseball wasn't a rich man's amusement then, these were regular Joes. People try to get in to see the Pope these days, in Vatican City, wearing halter tops and flip flops, and are offended when the Swiss Guards tell them to shove off and hie to a haberdasher.

This informality, coupled with a strange kind of truthfulness, has made the snout house amenable to many folks. Because they feel no need to have a ceremonial front door on their house anymore, as no-one is ever going to walk to their house, ever, to see them. They are going to enter their house through the garage, every time, because that's the way life is. Their kids might play in the street outside the house, but all our assorted playthings have always been in the garage, all the way back to when the garage was a stable, and modern people are just acknowledging that. So there's a sort of sense in the house turning its back on the street, because there's no people in the street any more, just cars. And the precious green space is in the back, and their house sorta faces it, and many times their neighbor's green space, and they are secluded from the pavement in a very salubrious way.

And so I look at these houses, and like to think that what we're looking at, is a reversal, but a copy, if that's possible, of the urban alley. All the services happened in an alley, while the house faced the promenade of the streetscene on the other side. And so people buy their snout houses, not considering the streetscene, because in their uncritical look at it, they see it for what it is, which is the utility side of their house. And the house hunches its shoulders, and gathers the green plat if the yard in its arms, in the back, and people are content, which is Good.

But I know why they're really built this way, dear reader, and I don't like it. Builders decide what gets built these days, not the eventual owners, and they get their plans from the back of magazines, drawn by knuckleheads without any design smarts, almost like a comic book version of a house. It's not their fault, these designers, that Architects abandoned any idea of good design for domiciles and concentrated solely on making public buildings expensive and hideous, and left "designers" to design our houses in crayon.

The real reason the snout house swept the nation is because the driveway is shorter that way, and the builder saves a few bucks on concrete or asphalt. That's it. And he just buys a jet ski or a bass boat with the money, and we all get to look at garage doors all day.

13 comments:

Janet said...

"Snout houses" always remind me of a short National Film Board cartoon I saw decades ago. It was an alien analysis of life on earth. The dominant species was the automobile which was plagued by an infestation of two-legged parasites.

PatHMV said...

Hey, Janet! Haven't seen you in ages... hope all is well.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

So, it's the ass'- fault!

spazmo said...

But the shorter the driveway, the quicker one gets home...so it ain't all bad, right?

mythusmage said...

We don't have homes, we have garages for our vehicles and we live in the servants quarters.

Thud said...

In my ongoing quest for a house over here at the moment I have seen quite a few of these houses...I don't understand them so I just move on.

AJ Lynch said...

Fing genius as per usual. Crank- I like that word- I aspire everyday to be an extraordinary one.

Where did you come up with the plumber's analogy? Fing good too.

Kids should be assigned to read your blog for English, logic, debate and history classes!

AJ Lynch said...

And for recess too cause your blog is just good entertainment as well.

SippicanCottage said...

aj- you are very lavish with your praise and I am grateful for it.

Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting.

blake said...

What's the salient characteristic of the snout house, Sip? Is it that the garage is right there in front?

My neighborhood is mostly that, and they were all built in 1950.

And if they put that concrete in--that stuff they're saving--isn't that more of your property that's basically lost to being a driveway?

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Blake- Thanks for reading and commenting.

The best definition of what a snout house is: If a Trick-or-Treater doesn't immediately know where to go, your house design is a failure.

Being "lost to being a driveway" is an interesting term. You're assuming that a driveway is useless and an ornamental front yard is precious.

Ride your trike, sidewalk chalk, hopscotch, street hockey, shoot hoops... you can do things in your driveway. It's not lost. It's just doing something else.

blake said...

Fair point, Sip! And by that definition few of the houses here would fall into that category; the front doors are quite obvious.

But don't get me started on Trick or Treat. Maybe half the houses around here still participate. Maybe 40%.

Steve From Virginia said...

Snout house: that's a good one, added to the lexicon.

Reminds me of San Fran, walking the foggy streets at 2 am, every house with a roll-up garage door like a warehouse, house after house, block after block, mile after mile.

The street(s) are drainage canals sluicing with waste (automobiles). Faceless, soulless, hate-filled San Fran, its endless traffic and roll-up doors.

Here's another, The Slot:

http://maxipad.net/images/mansion_img_1.jpg

Where I live now this is common, in pricey DC suburbs, where the slot is a feature from housing's haunted past. Like the sagging mouth on a napalm victim, the Slot levels its baleful, accusatory gaze at all who pass by.

Woe, we have sold our souls to General Motors.