Wednesday, November 15, 2006


We live, historically speaking, very private lives. The first world may be the first place where, for example, almost all children sleep in different rooms than their parents. Before, say, 1700, most extended families slept in the same room. (In some cultures, along with some of the livestock.) In the 100,000 years since, as a species, we walked out of Africa, we have lived most of our intimate lives in each other's presence. But now, one's closest friends do not really know things about us that everyone would have known three hundred years ago, and that in rural India or Central Africa, everyone knows about each other now.

I came to understand a little more about the Asian concept of face when I began to see it as linked to privacy. My Chinese students lived eight to a dorm room and so had, as most of their families did, very little privacy. Which means that there is a lot of etiquette of eye-averting. When everyone lives together, there are things you look away from. 'Privacy' is a Western concept. Chinese history is about 6000 years old, but they had no word for privacy until is was introduced from the West about 100 years ago. I asked a student one time where one could be private. After a long moment wrestling with the idea, she pointed to her forehead. In her head. So when someone loses face, it often resembles the feeling we get when someone inadvertently walks into the bathroom on you.

With all our bedrooms and separate house, we're oddly free to have secrets and we also fetishize those secrets. That's a great deal of what realty programs like The Real World pretend to provide, the private person. (Although I think that if someone cleans your house for you, you have no real secrets.)

Moving into a house where someone else has lived, I have found myself forced to consider their lives because in our case they left us a lot. Since all we have of these people is our brief history of negotiation and what we find of them in what used to be their house, we get a skewed view of them, I know. But they left a lot of stuff. Enough to fill up the back of my Subaru Outback (I'm taking a lot of it to Goodwill.) This includes a very dirty toddler's basketball hoop, a toddler's big wheel, a framed charcoal sketch of three vaguely Renaissance nudes, a poster of a baby giraffe, some broken stuff, a bunch of trash, two picture collage frames, two pillows, a bunch of baking stuff (a cookie sheet, a couple of aluminium muffin pans, a clay roaster, some glass jars, one with three rolls of life savers in it and bunch of other miscellany) a couple of pillows and, as pictured above, a container of toddler bath toys, used. (After we had closed on the house, we did see that they had come back in and gotten some towels and a clock they had left. Which, frankly, felt a little creepy. We changed the locks.)

So my entire understanding of the people who had this house before us is based on the fact that they left us used and dirty toys. I suspect it's not a fair understanding. But as I clean up after them, it's hard not to assign some meaning to all of this. It's my own, personal little reality show.


Caroline Spector said...

All I can say is: Ewwwwwwwwwwww!

It's bad enough having to do your own perpetual drudgery (i.e., housework) but having someone leave behind their cast-off ookiness is beyond the pale. That's lazy and rude on a scale that's pretty impressive. I may have to go squeegy my third eye now just so I'm not thoroughly creeped out.

Great post, Maureen.

Morgan J Locke said...

That was my reaction, too. How disgusting, to leave your own junk for other people to clean out.

Steven Gould said...

On the other hand, sometimes it's treasure.

I've got a 1930's full straw boater (the hat) that was preserved in a plastic bag down in our crawlspace. Also, two political buttons, one for Adelai Stevenson and one for John F. Kennedy.

The person who owned the house before Laura was an aged widdow and they cleaned out the house just fine, but getting into the crawl space involved some pretty fancy gymnastics.

Certainly not something she would've been capable of.

LauraJMixon said...

Er, for clarification -- "The person who owned the house before Laura DID."

Not "The person who owned the house before Laura was an aged widow."

Steven Gould said...

Yeah--since the circumstances necessary to you becoming a widow are, well, undesirable to myself.

Madeleine Robins said...

I once had to get rid of an elderly, non-functional upright piano that had been left in my third floor walkup apartment. Given the fact that it was not a working instrument and would have cost a fortune to get rid of, I can see the previous tenant's point. Still...with a couple of sledgehammers and an axe, it proved a remarkably cathartic exercise.

Maureen McHugh said...

Mad, that sounds, well, fun, actually. Although I'm glad these people didn't leave an upright.