What follows is the first in a regular series Erica has dubbed “Philobservations:” a wonderful coinage which encompasses the philosophical observations we all make about the weirdness of life. This is piece is by her, as are the images. Enjoy, like, comment, share!
You can learn a lot about someone by seeing the objects they keep and the spaces where they sleep. Like this plant, cared for lovingly and repaired with rubber bands and hair clips, which tells me a lot about my friend L, the occupier of this Brooklyn apartment.
I like to hang out in other people’s homes, other people’s spaces. You can feel who they are by the objects kept, placed, arranged. What kind of space is it? What activities happen in this space? You learn a lot about a person or a family by seeing habitat.
Entering other people’s homes, I think: What will the space tell me about this person I thought I knew? Will it confirm my doubts, suspicions, irrational thoughts? Will it reinforce my anxieties that this person or this relationship really is too good to be true? What will the apartment we’re staying in through Air B-n-B show me about the owner? They said they were an artist. It will be interesting to see how an artist lives. (As if there’s one way.)
I particularly like to hang out in other people’s homes when they’re not there. Not like I’m a robber or a stalker or a home invader. I mean you can only really look around when someone’s not there. The staring would be weird in company. Alone, you can look behind doors and open cabinets. (I was looking for a water glass. I needed some ibuprofen!!) Alone, you might even muster the pizazz to sneak a glance at the bedroom, and then, if the coast is still clear, to furtively step across the carpet to see what’s on the night stands. Of course you wouldn’t go any further than that, unless you saw something alarming or incriminating at first glance. But curiosity killed the cat, and it can also kill friendships.
Taboozle is the verb I use for “committing a taboo”. This can also relate to the word “bamboozle”, which means to trick or perplex, a definition that relates to what happens when you commit a taboo in the company of others. Taboozling in someone’s home seems to me the basis of many fraught interactions and uncomfortable silences, of unspoken offenses, and broken connections.
A host inviting you to lay your weary head within the boundaries of their living space is an extension of trust. After all, we could turn out to be some sort of Tom-Ripley-identity-thief creeps. When building relationships with strangers that’s what we’re always trying to decipher, right? Is this person potentially harmful to me and/or my family and friends? That’s why I like being in other people’s homes with or without them around. I am confirming a trust connection by visiting, or having someone visit me in my, home.
That’s why even just the act of being invited into someone’s home is exciting: for dinner, a movie, a jam session, an after-school play session (that was always the best day at school…a different bus, no way!), a work project, a games night, an orgy, a book club, a poker game, a Super Bowl Sunday, a Ouija séance, or for a cup of tea. When you are invited into someone’s home, you are able to feel more trust towards them because you now see how they live. Vice versa: they’ve extended trust to you.
Vice versa, too: if someone always insists you come to their home and never visits you in yours, you feel as though trust is not being extended in your direction. Don’t they trust me to throw a nice dinner party? Don’t they trust that I’ll clean before they come and have food in the fridge? Don’t they trust I’ll put my drugs away so their kids won’t eat them? Don’t they recognize and respect my or our identity as an independent adult, as housemates, a couple, or family? Why can’t they come to my house, to show respect to me? I go to their house and I show respect to them when I’m there. Lack of exchange between living spaces can lead to unspoken taboozlings. Of what trick am I unknowingly a part?
The next time you invite–or are invited by–friends or family, you’d do well to remember that there is direct reactional symmetry between the small gestures of respect you show when in someone’s house and the level of hospitality and welcome your host shows towards you. This begins the moment the door is opened and you step inside. (Remember: a vampire can’t cross the threshold uninvited, so it’s good to remember that there aren’t that many vampires out there, just people whose houses you haven’t been to. Or people who have been living alone and unloved for far too long.)
The next time you leave someone’s house and think: Gosh, they don’t seem to like us. Is it something we did or said? Is it them or us? It’s you. You did or said something that, from their perspective, was disrespectful, no matter how outlandish that possible perspective might seem to you. So apologize. If you want a comedic dramatization of this phenomenon watch any episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Larry David gaffs again and again inside the domestic realms of his friends and co-workers. Outside of the home, too, Larry’s social faux pas and indifferences towards societal guidelines taboozle him hilariously across LA.)
As do many, I relate to David’s character. Just this weekend, while staying at the Brooklyn apartment of my best friend from high school, I taboozled. L went out at noon to work a shift at her bar, a divey saloon at the Atlantic stop on the NRQ. She said, I don’t know if you have any weed with you, just don’t smoke weed in my house. I stopped smoking weed and I don’t want it in my house. Okay, I said.
I know you’re thinking that I smoked weed in her house, but I didn’t.
Yet, still, I managed to break a few of her other rules.
Now I’m not saying that everyone who comes into your home should receive an oral or written list of your rules (though some people do do that to their guests). I am saying that I respect other people’s spaces and things. My main goal when I’m in someone’s home and I am alone is to not use or touch anything unnecessarily and to always, always, always move things back to exactly how they were before that person left you alone with their things. Of course, I never, ever manage to do this.
So it’s a hot day and I get some frozen mango, bananas, blueberries, cucumbers, and a can of coconut water at the local market around the corner. I come back to L’s and I see her dishes need doing. I also see her coffee press machine is a little dirty. So, as a gracious host, I start to do her dishes. I get really into it. Then I fold her towels all neatly and hang them on the oven door rod. Then I notice her floor is pretty dirty and I find the broom and dustpan and start sweeping. Now, when you sweep you move stuff. So, I tell myself: Okay, remember where everything is right now and then you can put it back. No problem. And L will be so happy her floor and dishes are clean when she returns from work. No problem.
I don’t want to disappoint you so I’ll warn you now: nothing extraordinary or surprising really happens in this story. Yet it does relate to this mini philosophical essay I’m composing, so here goes.
I move a few plants, I move a stool, I’m sure I moved a cutting board and some pans. I’ve put away the dishes that were in the rack drying and I’m pretty certain I put stuff where L would never put it. I’m worried about this because I’m a house guest and I shouldn’t mess things up or ruin my host’s routine. This is important. Dr. Moore recommends you remember this: One must respect others’ routines. And when you’re in your own home, you can ask others to respect yours. It’s all about recognizing and, importantly, not judging others’ boundaries. So I move a few plants and then I decide to take a break and eat some frozen mango. It’s a hot day, approaching 95 Fahrenheit. Only the middle room with the sofa and TV has AC. The kitchen is hot and sticky and sunny as I open the cupboard to find a suitable bowl for my summer-vacation-mango-chomping and see this:
You can spot my choice right away, and I figure because they are not on a high shelf, but the middle shelf, that they must get frequent usage. The glass is delicate and pink and I feel dainty and summery already.
I find a miniature spoon and sit in the air-conditioned room with the orange curtains, Danish mid-century furniture and the abstract painting on the wall.
Now it has to be said that I’ve stayed with L many times. I’ve been staying with her–or with her family–since I was 12 years old: sleepovers and Christmas Eves and long weekends on visits from college, or on visits from my mother’s new (far a away house) to our old Long Island hometown in the summers, where her Brooklyn-born parents live to this day, and which holds “the-town-I-grew-up-in” status. We’re tight.
That’s how come I know she is unhappy when people mess with her shit. She doesn’t like people moving her shit or using her shit. She has a big brother and a big sister, which could be why. They are all strong-willed individualists. They fight like hell. So, L doesn’t like her shit to be messed with.
I mean L doesn’t even like to be touched. She’s a hard core independent person. Knowing this about her, I am careful not to disturb her routine. I respect the routines of any and every one. Respecting routine is the definition of respect. Challenge of a routine is the definition of controlling. (Unless of course the routine is causing negative consequences or ripples for that person or others, then you can challenge, but only through “learning conversations”.
I especially respect someone’s routine when I am in their space, when I become a function—helpful or hindering or neutral—to that routine. The moment you enter someone’s home, you become a temporary function of their routine. How well two people work together on their routines is the definition of long-term relationship stability, whether it be as roommates, housemates, partners, children, relatives, or blissful marriage. (I will go into the challenges of challenging others’ perceptions and paths in another essay.)
As I sit admiring the interior design of L’s awesome city apartment, these thoughts cross my mind (as well as thoughts about what it means to stay in someone’s home).
I taste and enjoy mango.
I return to the clean kitchen post-feast, carefully wash the pink glass and tell myself to return it to the cupboard before I leave. I drink my can of coconut water and place it, empty, beside the front door, telling myself to take the can with me when I leave, to recycle it in a trash can on the sidewalk outside. I look at the plant on the floor, see some empty space for plants in the kitchen window, pick the plant up and put it on the window ledge. I look around. All looks good. I take a shower, I drink water, I eat some beetroot chips (purchased by me at the market and I’ve left some for L, too). All of a sudden it’s 4:30pm and I have to leave to catch two subways and a boat to get to the festival in time to hear Alabama Shakes. I pull the blanket over the sofa where I slept, replace one of the back cushions, fold all of my clothes and items into my bags and into little neat piles on the coffee table. I look at the kitchen and bathroom and nod satisfactorily. I leave.
On the boat I remember that I didn’t throw away the can by the door and I ponder texting L to warn her. I decide against it because it seems rather trivial.
At the concert, I get a text: Is there a reason you needed to use my most vintage cocktail glasses? And put a plant that wants indirect sun in the window?
Now, some of you might be thinking at this point that L is a rude person. Maybe she is. But she doesn’t do me any harm because I always stand up for myself. And I like her. I think: Oh, shit, what is she talking about? Then I vaguely remember that sweet little pink mango glass and putting it back like I’d planned. I can’t recall doing anything wrong with the plant, though, but I guess I have. I text back: Just that I was cleaning. Sorry to annoy you. L doesn’t agree that using an antique alcohol glass counts as “cleaning” and sarcastically thanks me for cleaning it. I write again: I needed the fancy glass for my frozen mango. Honesty and comedy reign supreme, which are really synonymous because comedy shows us our funniest fears. L responds: Fancy fuck. And then apologizes, saying she was tired and grumpy after work.
I am happy we are open in our communication. I appreciate direct communication and feedback about behavior and choices because it means you look into yourself and ask: What happened? Did I make a mistake? Did I convey a meaning or a feeling contrary to my intent? To me, this is constructive confrontation, which offers introspective thinking on the extrinsic level. Confrontation also forces you to ask the other person: Why do you feel that way about my actions or behavior?
Of course, not everyone views confrontation like this. But I think if we viewed all confrontation as a chink in the communication chain, or as an other’s ear that hears you in a way that you cannot or might not even be able to fathom to begin to understand, then you are emphasizing the importance of communication and perspective to tackle the world’s biggest problems.
But grandiose philosophizing aside, this situation with L: this type of story is usual for me. I do a “Larry David” almost every day and almost every time I stay at someone’s house. Every time. From clogging toilets with tampons, to breaking vases, to using someone’s hairbrush, floss, or sports bra because I forgot mine, I am a wealth of house-guest taboos. Yet, unlike Larry David’s finely crafted, comedically unaware, and unrelenting character, I am aware, I take criticism, and I communicate. Most importantly, I say I’m sorry.
Yet we can look to Curb again to further establish the wider point here: Communicating boundaries is crucial for good communication. It’s also crucial for comedy. Comedy is the act of breaking boundaries. This is my claim and I’m sure it relates to previous claims, too, which I will expound on in a later essay. For now I will say this: Comedy is funny because we all agree on the social expectation that is being broken by the comedian (in actions or words). Comedy is talking about the taboo. Funny situations arise when we Taboozle. (This is also why humor does not always translate across cultures.)
The power of the media is its ability to shape and also to change our minds, pervasively and ubiquitously and trendily. To change what we laugh at. To change what we fear. To change how we see the world.
Back home, changing our minds means seeing what’s inside the alleged bogey man’s home. It’s all about perspective. In life there are always those friends and lovers who never invite you to their homes for dinner, or for board games, or for sex, and eventually those relationships dwindle. Trust is neither extended nor accepted.
If we could see the insides of people’s homes, we would trust our neighbors more. If more people invited each other into their homes, we would open communication and trust across our neighborhoods and our nations. The willingness with which people of other nations opened up their homes to me, as an American—while I was living for ten years abroad in several different countries—was a lighthouse on the unknown shoals of foreign shores, and a favor that I return to visitors from any country in the world who I meet, cordially and pleasantly, including those from my own land. Greg Grano and Sarah Sellman’s documentary American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers (2013) is all about this phenomenon in the USA. (Dr. Moore recommends.)
I’m writing this from Brooklyn, still in L’s apartment. I get back from the concert after 1am and L has already gone to sleep. I have a shower and collapse on the sofa bed with a crowd-anxiety-induced migraine. We both wake up around 2pm the next day. The sun is shining and the thermometer says 98 F. We sit around talking and I make us some granola with fresh banana and blueberries. She apologizes again for her texts and we have a laugh about it. How I don’t even drink and she thought it very strange that I used a cocktail glass. How I thought it was an ice cream glass. How I had written all this stuff about being respectful in someone’s home and then gone and been disrespectful in hers. I read her some of my writing. She laughs a bit. How she’s a tight wad about everything. How she claims she’s a tightwad because she’s lived alone for the majority of her adult life. We think about it and realize it’s true. She had a recent long-term relationship of 3 or so years. I had a relationship of 9: 6 years of traveling and grad school, which ended with a marriage of 3.
If I think about it at the most simple level possible, my marriage ended because I did not feel safe, supported, or loved in my own home. My home had become a place where I could not relax. I was about to kill myself over it.
And then I think of war-torn nations. How a whole country you call home becomes your safe-space no longer. How sad is that.
So just remember: Homes are trust ships; Apologize if you Taboozle in someone else’s space; Comedies are based on agreeing on and then overturning our shared notions of “rightness”; Fear is based on our imagination of the unseen and what to fear or not fear is propagated in everything we read or hear; and Taboos happen all the time. Forgive and move on.
 Stone, D. et al. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin.