When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.
Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…
The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.
I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?
After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.
Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.
I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.
There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.
The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.
That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.
You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.
When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.
I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.
Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.
“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.
I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.
But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…
Welcome to our current social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.
And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.
It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.
Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.
I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.
To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.
So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.