Houses in pop culture: Normal People

A few years ago, I read and adored Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The novel is a quiet character study of a relationship between two Irish teenagers over the course of several years, written by an Irish author for an Irish audience. It’s by no means a perfect novel, but I certainly found it emotionally evocative. Since I’ve shifted my literary focus away from Normal People, it has apparently picked up steam, even being adapted into a one-season Hulu original TV show that just came out last week. I’ve been decompressing from the semester with this excellent adaption. On that note: houses in Normal People.

The story’s female protagonist, Marianne, comes from a relatively wealthy yet emotionally distant household. The physical structure of her fictional home reflects this. It’s grandiose, decorated with pale neutrals tone, with lots of open space. In the screen adaptation, the director situates the home’s inhabitants far apart from each other, and films the shot with a wide lens to emphasis both the physical and emotional distance between the character. Marianne herself is the “colder” character, and this is further epitomized by her elegant, sparsely decorated bedroom.

By contrast, the story’s male protagonist, Connell, grows up in a loving yet more modest home. His house is (comparably) not much to look at, but Connell and his single mother fill in it with a tangible warmth. Connell’s bedroom, unlike Marianne’s, is decorated floor-to-ceiling with posters. This phenomenon (and the contrast between the two main characters) is further developed in a scene where Marianne spends the holidays with Connell, where his extended family conveys even more warmth and love absent from Marianne’s household.

Furthermore, Connell’s mother Lorraine works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. In this capacity, Marianne’s house serves as the initial common link to their relationship. In its other capacities, as outlined above, the protagonists’ houses serve as both reflections and forces of develop on the characters.

A house in the snow

I’ve been watching the Game of Thrones recently and it has really made me miss winter. I know that sounds crazy considering the Night King and his army of the living dead (if you’ve seen the show you know him and his friends are a gang of walking icicles, I’m not talking about them). I’m talking about the way winter was portrayed on the show and how magical the snowflakes looked gathered on people’s heads (haha). I’m not sure what the title of this painting is (it is number 63 on our slides of American Houses in Art), but I thought it was really beautiful.

I enjoy the conservative color pallet of this painting. I think it’s simplicity and the particular colors have a calming effect. The artists successfully created a scene using about three to four colors but maintained variety and interest with texture and linework. I really like the spontaneous brush strokes on the tree on the far left, and how the artist dusted in the snow. This painting feels light and welcoming, though it is depicting a bleak winter scene… maybe I just feel that way right now because I wish I was there.

The Professors house

I think it is understandable that the professor is so attached to his home and the objects that surrounded him in his attic. When my family and I were moving out of our apartment, I remember feeling really excited to throw away the junk that no one touched for years. Oddly enough, whenever I went to throw something away I found myself packing it again to take with me. It took me months to build the strength to finally get rid of those things after we’d settled down. I tend to get nostalgic for confined spaces and the things in them, so I can relate with the professor.

I imagine the professor’s house as a colonial-style home with its box-like structure and narrow front porch. I think his study would feel small with the singular window being the only source of light in the space. Reading the description of the attic made me think about all the movies I’ve seen set in time periods when people wrote using ink and quill. I can see the professor hunched over his desk, having a hard time deciphering his writing in the dim-lit space. Everything about the attic feels older fashioned and comfortable.

Sexism and the “Man Cave”

I was really fascinated by the idea from the article that removing the kitchen from the home creates a more gender neutral space. While I recognize the kitchen as a particularly gendered space, I was wondering if there is a male equivalent in the household. Then it hit me: a man cave. While not every house has one, man caves are typically rooms in which men can over-present their masculinity. The term “man cave” first gained traction in the 1990s and seemed to be a rebellion against the “feminine touches” perceived in houses and housing design. As the house was the “women’s domain,” women theoretically had control over the design of the home. Thus, many decisions about furnishings and organization within the home were expected to be made by women, with little to no assistance from men. Typically constructed in a garage or basement, a key component of man caves is privacy. Man caves were places for men to take charge and assert their masculinity (if they could not already see their massive privilege as demonstrated by the confinement of women and women’s self-expression to a private space).

              I find the concept of a man cave sexist and childish. In film depictions of “man cave-esque” rooms, they seem like a revitalization of frat-style living except with an added layer of sexism produced by the expectation that this room is an escape from married life and a return to the careless behaviors men could indulge in their youth. What makes man caves even worse is the expectation that women will take care of these rooms (i.e. cleaning them, cooking meals for the occupants, etc.). Man caves are yet another place where men can express their masculinity without consequence. This discussion also reminds me of the “bachelor pad,” a place where men can again escape the tasks of adulthood by attributing their behaviors to their manliness. The injustice in socially accepting these spaces where men can be carefree is the fact that these spaces do not exist for women. Women are constantly expected to be productive and positively contribute to the home environment. While we, as a society, are hopefully moving away from this trend, the unequal expectations for women to maintain households and provide internally contributes to sexism within our society and okays over the top displays of masculinity expressed by men.

Homesickness

Homesickness is something that was very much on my mind around this time last year. I spent most of my high school years ecstatic to get out of Fairfax County and go to college. Even though aspects of the choosing a college process were very stressful, I honestly loved going on college tours, just because I’ve always been the type of person who enjoys dreaming about all of the future possibilities that come with moving to a new place. I was lucky enough to be able to tour all but one of the nine colleges that I applied to, and then some others that I decided weren’t for me.

That one college that I never got to tour before I applied was a school that I tacked onto my common application at the last minute: Temple University. I had only been on Temple’s website for about half an hour when I applied. I had never even been to Philadelphia. When it was the first acceptance letter that I got in the mail, I wasn’t totally excited because I hadn’t had the time or level of interaction with the university to get excited about the possibility of going there. So, when I finally decided to go to Temple (after weeks of very anxious deliberation), all of those other fantasies about swimming at Sarah Lawrence or living in a Boston high rise at BU that had gotten me through the worst parts of high school suddenly… died. Thus, my decision day brought way less relief and thrill than I was expecting it to.

My decision day pictures with my friends from high school. The smile is a lie. I’m terrified.

And then it finally hit me that I was really close to actually leaving for school, and I experienced a level of nostalgia that I hadn’t even thought was possible. I think I assumed that by my senior year, I would be totally ready for college, but it just showed up a lot quicker than I was expecting it to.

I had a rough freshman year of high school, so I transferred to a different high school in my area my sophomore year. I wound up making friends gradually, and by senior year I was hanging out with the people that I loved more than ever before, and we were all going to different colleges. That summer, I worked and swam at the same pool that I’ve been going to since I was five. At our last home swim meet, I was a wreck. It was frankly embarrassing.

Photo from my last “swim banquet” with my swim coach of seven years… yes I did cry.

So, I spent the first three weeks of my Temple experience feeling cripplingly homesick for my high school support system and the pool community of my childhood. I left freshman convocation early because something that one of the speakers said in their speech reminded me of one of my friends back home, and I could feel myself starting to cry.

This wasn’t the first time that I had been away from home without my family or friends, but I had never missed them so much before. What made it harder was that everyone in my friend group was trying not to text each other too much. It’s understandable: everybody wants to make new friends and not get stuck back at home.

The passage in the homesickness reading (lol finally a tie-in, but I promise this story is relevant) about how the military used group-bonding tactics to try and eliminate homesickness really resonated with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in hindsight, but also during my first week, I felt like my longing for home (again, not my house, but rather the people) definitely affected my ability to enjoy a lot of the really cool welcome week events, so it makes sense that during war time, homesickness was considered a distraction.

Second, when I finally did text with one of my best friends back home, I received a super dense, very excited paragraph about how much he had already bonded with his ROTC group during their orientation week. I could tell that the RA’s were trying to achieve that balance of getting people to interact with each other and do icebreakers while not forcing it too much, but there’s really nothing more effective than the Yale ROTC strategy of forcing all of their freshmen to go on a week long hike together in the rain in lieu of a conventional orientation week. I found myself wishing, as an introvert, that there had been more mandatory fun with my hall mates, but at the same time, I skipped a lot of voluntary bonding events in favor of moping in my dorm room.

I realize this sounds really sad, but please don’t feel bad. By the beginning of October, I had plenty of friends and I was loving being in Philly. I’m good now. In fact, being back home, I’ve experienced a kind of reverse homesickness for Philly, which I guess is a good sign. Then again, my homesickness for my high school friends and the pool also could have been considered a good thing since it meant that I had a pretty good high school experience. Thus, I went back and forth while reading debating whether or not I thought the military’s stance towards “momism” was too harsh (it was undeniably sexist), or if they were just trying to look out for their soldiers and improve focus in morale during a situation when both of those things were necessary for carrying on.

Frank Webster’s tract house

My favorite of the paintings in the power point of houses in American Art was probably one of the simplest ones in the group, entitled “Tract House, Vineland, NJ” by artist Frank Webster. I tried to insert a photo of the painting here, but the blog is just not letting me do that, so I’ll just say that it’s slide number 49 in the power point and it depicts a typical, one story suburban home without much detail. The painting appears very uncomplicated, and it’s almost void of all color. It doesn’t have a lot of emotion to it like some of the paintings do, like the sinister shadow of the new house, or the liveliness of the many well-populated paintings in the slideshow. It even lacks the loneliness of Hopper’s pieces.

I think the reason I like it so much is that it’s representative of the average American house while lacking all of the qualities in the other paintings that make the structure a home. When I look at the painting, I see a suburban house that’s probably surrounded by others just like it. It’s empty: it’s been moved out of already and is awaiting new owners. The washed out color and the lack of detail makes it appear to be the shell of a home: a blank canvas for a new family to move into and personalize and add their own color and story.

It’s not that I dislike color; I actually adore bright and bold colors. But something about the potential of the empty home in this painting makes me smile. It’s as if the artist wanted to strip away everything that made the house unique and present the simplest structure for the viewer to see where most American’s homes begin before they gain all of the attributes that make them emotionally important to their past and present occupants. “Little Boxes” actually popped into my head when I first looked at it.

Nostalgia: a weighted blanket

When reading the “The Professor’s House,” I felt a connection with the professor in one particular way: nostalgia for a rose-tinted past. The professor takes a bit far perhaps, clinging to dress models that have filled the periphery of his life for a decade. But I get it. You grow attached to little thing.

The way he talked about his childhood on the lake actually reminded me a lot of the way my mom talked about her childhood near Lake Michigan. When we went to visit in high school, I could tell the place brought her back.

my mom and I at sleeping bear sand dunes in michigan

As I’ve left home, and I realize I’m not that old, I’ve been able to look back on the less rosy parts of my past with a small smile. For me, nostalgia doesn’t make me take a vice grip onto my past. You can accept it, and learn to love all parts of it. It made everything here possible. Nostalgia is less a painful longing to return, and more a weighted blanket. A comforting presence that I can always return to.

I don’t really believe in regret.

Homesickness, however… I don’t really get homesick for a building. I get homesick for friends and times I’ve had with them, or a place I would go to that sheltered me. That have been kind to me. Like, back home, there was this parking garage above the Barnes and Noble. I would go there to the top level, where there were never any cars, open the windows, and read. A safe place, where no one could find me.

that parking lot, in sunset.

I’ve been thinking about places a lot, this quarantine. Hope to get to go to some again soon.

Vienna :)

Homesickness is something I think a lot about. When I was younger, I would have intense feelings of “homesickness” whenever I would be away from my home overnight. Looking back, I wonder now if it was less “homesickness” and more a form of separation anxiety experienced from being away from my parents. Moreover, this could have been a feeling of homesickness for a sense of home created by my parents and that I felt through my family connection instead of my actual home. When I was ten years old (I think), I went to girl scout sleep-away camp for a week. The camp was called “Camp Laughing Waters” …I called it “Camp Crying Waters.” I missed my family so much I wrote to them every day, expressing in great detail how disgusted I was with my situation and how much I missed home. My letters were so dramatic that my mother ended up calling the camp and asking me if I wanted to come home (I said no). Despite developing friends at the camp, I still felt a disconnect and a longing to be with my family. No matter what I did, I felt an unrelenting sadness that tainted many of my experiences and memories of the camp.

              When I made the decision to study abroad this past summer, I thought long and hard about my history of homesickness. I was worried I would get homesick or miss my family and friends and that, instead of being at a camp an hour away from my house, I would be in another country, eight hours away from home by plane. I decided to go because I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and have an experience living away from my family and existing in my own space. Before I left my parents, I remember crying, not because I was going to miss them, but because I was so excited to finally have freedom and a chance to explore myself and explore the world. I cannot name one time I was homesick on that trip. Something about the independence and excitement of traversing a new nation blocked all the sadness from my mind. I became entranced in new cultures and found myself nostalgic for countries I’d only visited for two days.

              Nostalgia for me is a combination of emotions and experiences that elevate a moment in my life and make me long for a feeling I have felt. Though I only spent the weekend there, I feel intense nostalgia for Vienna. Maybe it is because I felt accepted by everyone there or because the entire journey was a whirlwind, but Vienna will always hold a special place in my heart. When I was traveling, I decided to pick a song that named the place I was visiting to sing while I was there. My song for Vienna was an aptly named song called “Vienna” by Matt Costa. Whenever I listen to the song, it takes me back to the streets of Vienna with the sun beating down and the smell of flowers in the air. It’s funny that even now the idea of nostalgia isn’t quantifiable for me. There are no words I can think of to capture the way I felt while I was there and still feel looking back. Nostalgia creates new senses of home for us and uncovers connections we feel to places and experiences.

THe Professor’s House: The Professor’s House

I can totally relate to the irrationality of staying in a less-than-ideal house for nostalgic reasons. While I do assign some value on a house based on its practical comforts, I mostly assess the houses I’ve lived in off the basis of how I felt during the time in my life that I spent there. If enjoy a mostly positive period in my life at a given home, I will associate that positivity with it. If two experiences conflict, then I will associate the home with the most reason experience. Two identical sets of decor, amenities, furniture, smells, and layouts could have contrasting associations, depending on whether which lens they perceived through.

American Foursquare

I imagined the professor’s house as an American Foursquare, a style which stuck out to me for both its aesthetic and its name as I browsed the architectural manual provided for this class. It’s generally square-ish, as the name implies, with a little attic centered on top. This style perfectly frames the professor’s attic study in a manner which conveys its symbolic significance. I could imagine a worldly professor cultivating a French garden there, and I could imagine the house sagging under the weight of the passage of time.

House vs. Home: A Study in Paint

The images embody the difference between a “house” and a “home.” The pieces by Edward Hopper seem solitary and empty, the opposite you would expect from an image of a “home.” These images, however, are titled “Ryder’s House” and “House by the Railroad,” the key word being “house.” A “house” is a canvas itself, with the building itself being more telling than the story it holds. Once a house holds a story, it becomes a home. Whether it is a home for people or memories, it is a structure that is colored with more than paint or siding. Hopper’s images remove the “home” from these houses, leaving them as blank structures. They seem worn, yet unlived-in, a strange contrast that causes a disconnect between the image and the viewer. The colors used in “House by the Railroad” are washed out, with a shadow removing even more life from the painting. The emptiness in Hopper’s images might be a commentary on loneliness. Taking a structure that is supposed to be a canvas for memory and leaving it blank suggests an isolation of the self.

“Ryder’s House” by Edward Hopper, painted in 1933.
“House by the Railroad” by Edward Hopper, painted in 1925.

The concept of house and home in Hopper’s images is juxtaposed with an examination of Sanford Robinson Gifford’s image “A Home in the Wilderness.” The image depicts a solitary home within a landscape scene of mountains, a forest, and a lake. While the isolation in this image could make for a bleak scene, the house seems inviting. The warmth of the colors utilized by Gifford as well as the grouping of the trees give life to the scene and give the image a curious, relaxing energy. There is depth, too, to the image which give it a sense of hope. The seeming sunset or sunrise adds structure to the piece and places it within the story of someone’s life or of a passing day, thereby connecting the viewer to the image by suggesting they exist in the same space as the painting.

“A Home in the Wilderness” by Sanford Robinson Gifford, painted in 1866.

These three images demonstrate the differences between “houses” and “homes.” While houses can exist long after their inhabitants have left, it is the people, the stories, and the memories that give them life.