In a recent New York Times “Opinionator” blog, Joan DeJean, a University of Pennsylvania professor of romance languages, wrote — not about Portuguese declensions or the Indo-European roots of Romanian — but about living rooms, of all things.
What exactly IS an American-style living room? the posting asked.
But instead of definitively answering that provocative question that burns in the minds of millions, she mostly traced the evolution of the living-room concept from the days when upper-crust homes were honeycombed with various parlors. You know, like the one in black-and-white movies, where the family gathers ’round the piano to sing Christmas carols. The less-grand of these parlors, DeJean wrote, “were the original living rooms,” without explaining in much detail. I deduce that it was there, once a week or so, that stern mothers and sterner fathers allowed their kids, in their starched shirts and dresses, to play jacks, pet the dog, and study their multiplication tables.
DeJean quickly dove into European architectural history; I dropped away as she was describing the Château de Montgeoffroy.
So that leaves me to write about America’s living rooms.
I guess I need a premise — a hypothesis about living rooms to support or refute.
OK, I would argue that, although their form may endure, their function has pretty much come and gone.
Not many families that I know gather in the “front room” to play Monopoly, or wrap coins together, or pull taffy any longer. They’re chatting in their oversized kitchens with granite countertops, color-coordinated cabinets, hanging wine racks, and refrigeration “units” the size of Patagonia. They’re out back on the deck or screened-in porch, feeding the hummingbirds or barbecuing lamb. They’re in their respective “studies” — not studying, but tapping on computers. They’re running the treadmill in the spare bedroom or vegetating in the “rec room,” watching football on screens as big as the field.
The empty living room might as well be a prop in a model home. It’s not “living” at all.
In many a house, the living room is but a lonely extension of the dining space. On the infrequent occasions when someone important or related comes to dinner, it’s the place to which everyone “repairs” after dessert.
That’s the situation in our house. The “living room” is the cozy-looking, but rarely-invaded, backdrop to the dining area. Carol sometimes chats up clients there. Or I have another of my occasional “how’s-it-going?” talks with one of the children.
Our living room’s the place where, once a month, I shove stuff from the dining area in order to make room for the poker table and chairs. Carol piles photo equipment into the “living room” after a trip or big shoot, too, where it resides until she reorganizes.
So, like a lot of Americans, we don’t live in the living room much at all. Once or twice a winter, usually on a holiday, I’ll lug in an armful or two of logs from the backyard and set them ablaze in the fireplace. Otherwise, the fireplace yawns empty, sucking precious heat out of the house — and utility dollars out of our checkbook — even with the damper closed.
Every day, though, I must admit, the living room is the preferred lounge of Toasty, Tuxey, and Tabby. Living rooms are still in vogue if you’re a cat.
What our living room isn’t is a place where a TV set or, God forbid, “home theater” will ever be found. We won’t allow it, out of a crusty principle that living rooms ought to be for conversation, not slack-jawed captivation with some C-level celebrity’s pitch for a blood-pressure medication on the tube.
Besides, do you know what the buttered popcorn that goes with television watching does to a Victorian couch?
Television is background noise for Carol in her office as she fiddles with images, or a vicarious sports escape for me in my den — hunkered among my 1,786 beer bottles. As I’ve said, living rooms are for housecats.
A fellow from Maine, commenting on Joan DeJean’s story, complained that “[t]he wasted space in American homes is ridiculous, as anyone who’s been to a practical European home, the ones for regular people, can atest [sic].”
He’s right, of course, but what are we supposed to do? Turn the living room into a woodshop? Fill it with Carol’s mailing tubes? Rent it out? We can’t very well knock it down; the bedroom above would come crashing down. It wouldn’t be worth leaving our otherwise pragmatic abode and moving, just because the “living” part of a larger room sits empty most of the time. Where would the cats doze?
I wonder what the owners of the Château de Montgeoffroy did with all those parlors when the kids moved out?
Ronald McDonald Doesn’t Count
I happened to catch a McDonald’s Restaurants radio advertisement the other day. Instead of the fast-food giant’s usual pitch for its steak bagel sandwiches or sweet tea, it was a straightforward notice that McDonald’s is on the lookout for reliable new employees to man the counters and burger lines.
I guess the women recruits would man them as well.
The ad would have wafted past unnoticed had this remarkable statistic not leaped to my ear:
One in 12 Americans of employable age, it stated, now works, or has worked at some point, at a McDonald’s. One in 12. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are now 139 million working Americans, give or take a few hundred thousand as the nation deals with the vagaries of economic recovery.
Using 139 million as a baseline, that means that 11½ million of us have opened a McDonald’s at 5 a.m., added cheese squares and a pickle and a squirt of ketchup to a McDonald’s hamburger, checked on how the french fries are coming, cleaned the tables out front, mopped the floors, or run the place. Thousands of people started with the mopping and rose to the managing. Some went even higher into regional supervision or sales.
Dick and Mac McDonald opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1940. It was more of a barbecue drive-in place than the kind of McDonald’s the world knows today. But if you think about how the company has grown to include 32,000 restaurants in 117 countries — and about the 13,000 outlets in the United States alone — could it be possible that a billion Americans or more have slung burgers and filled Coke dispensers and packed toys into children’s “Happy Meals” at McDonald’s restaurants over those 60 years?
Without overanalyzing things or exhausting all the possibilities, that suggests to me that, aside from gender, age, race, probably public-school attendance, and maybe affiliation with one or two of the larger religious denominations, there may be nothing else that more Americans have had in common in the past 60 years than working at a McDonald’s restaurant.
Buried far, far down on a lot of Fortune 500 executives’ resumes is just that sort of humble experience.
There’s not a direct ladder to the top for the men and women who build Big Macs for a living. (I started to say “young men and women” but remembered all the retirees who have held the onions on my double cheeseburgers over the years.) Lots of McDonald’s employees climb only that ladder’s lowest rungs.
But McDonald’s and other everyday businesses that we take for granted do deliver more than a paycheck to an awful lot of people. For many, they offer the first taste of the “real world” outside the home and the streets; instill the first appreciation for discipline, teamwork, and hard work; and provide the first sense of accomplishment and pride.
I’d like to say that such experience also teaches them some basic math, but — hoping to unload pennies and put a whole quarter in my pocket — I’ve confused too many McDonald’s clerks over the years by paying for a 99-cent item with $1.24 on the counter. Maybe it’s those who make it to the Fortune 500 level who figure out the change without having to glance at the computerized cash register.
Whether we like McDonald’s food or think it has super-sized too many Americans, we might want to take a minute in line and consider the person who hands over our next McCafe mocha frappe or box of chicken McNuggets.
She or he could be the next president of something some day.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Damper. A movable plate that regulates air flow in a furnace, fireplace, or stove.
Declension. The breakdown of words — at least those in Indo-European languages — into various noun, verb, and adjective forms, etc., often depending upon the ways in which the endings of those words change.
Vagaries. Uncertainties and unpredictable occurrences, such as the vagaries of Mother Nature.Uncertainties and unpredictable occurrences, such as the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Waft. To gently flutter along in the air.To gently flutter along in the air.To gently flutter along in the air.