When approached about the possibility for writing a piece on the theme of “adornment” for this magazine, I must confess that my first thought on the subject was…well, nothing much at all. Adornment? Frankly, I have never had much of a feel for it, never developed much of an interest in it, as far as I can tell. I look around my house and take a quick inventory: a painting of a blooming tree (a dogwood, I think) my wife picked out someplace in Asheville, an African wood carving my brother gave me as a Christmas present a dozen years ago, assorted family photos, a few candles, an atomic clock, three plants hanging on for dear life against our collective negligence. My sole contribution is a jade vase I bought on impulse at an art gallery in my hometown last year. When I saw it, I remember thinking, “I need more beautiful things in my life. I need something different, some new way of thinking, some new way of being.”
I guess I thought that paying the equivalent of a car payment for a vase that wouldn’t hold half a quart of water would be a significant step in the evolution of my personal aesthetic, a critical shift in my consciousness, a tangible and daily reminder of a seismic change in my priorities. I might have spent the money on an assortment of vintage jazz records, or a weekend in Atlanta to see the Braves play a doubleheader, or on an Ipad. But I didn’t. I bought a jade vase, and I was already thinking about how best to feature it in our decidedly Spartan living room. I imagined it being as essential as The Dude’s rug in that timeless classic “The Big Lebowski.”
“Say, Chris, that jade vase really ties this room together,” visitors would remark.
Furthermore, I imagined that the vase would be just the beginning of a brand new interest in meaningful adornment. In a couple of years, our home would be literally teeming with provocative, attractively framed and matted works of art, perfectly chosen pottery, edgy black and white photographs, tapestries, who knew what all? I was, of course, not yet evolved enough to think in terms of unifying themes, at least not themes that reflected what I would consider good taste and an acceptable level of cultural literacy.
Indeed, the very notion of decorating themes was repulsive to me. It was one thing for my eighty-year-old grandmother to decorate her house in stuffed bears and woven baskets—everywhere in her house, cute little bears were peeking out at you from inside of their baskets, where they hibernated year round. It was another thing for my mother to decorate her rental cabin in apples. Apple wallpaper, apple-shaped potholders, wax apples huddling together in a fruit basket on the kitchen table, and wood-carved apples shining like little red moons on the end tables.
Under these very particular circumstances, such adornment might be considered “quaint,” “cute,” even “adorable.” But the truth is that not only did I lack the imagination or the determination to see such themes through to these logical extremes, even if I did I would not be able to live among the bears or apples for a full week before I would be donating them all to charity, or, opting for a more satisfying catharsis, burning them in a bonfire in the backyard.
It may be that the roots of my distaste for adornment dig deeply into my childhood, when adults everywhere seemed to favor adorning the walls of their homes with the severed heads of dead animals, or the inert bodies of dead fish fastened to wooden plaques. Even at an early age, I understood the utilitarian value of hunting as a means of providing food for the family, but I found the practice of killing an animal in order to stuff it and then make it seem to be alive again in one’s living room a surpassingly strange and disturbing one.
In my own bedroom, I opted for rock and roll posters—Led Zeppelin, Cheap Trick, Fleetwood Mac—along with glossy photos torn from Sports Illustrated, the subjects of which depended on my age. Before I turned thirteen, I chose photographs of sports figures such as Steve Garvey and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Post-thirteen, I waited patiently each year for the annual swimsuit issue to arrive, then adorned my walls with thrilling photos of Christie Brinkley on Seychelles Island or Cheryl Tiegs in Belize, both in bikinis no bigger than your average apple-shaped potholder.
I burned sandalwood incense pretty regularly and had a black light in the lamp on my dresser. I had a few bumper stickers pasted on my dresser mirror, including one that said, “You Can’t Hug With Nuclear Arms.”
That is about all I had in terms of adornment. While some of my friends went so far as to decorate their lockers at school with an array of decals, drawings, slogans, and other signs and symbols that they hoped would tell others something important about who they were, my locker was so plain that it might as well have been unoccupied.
Then there was the issue of automobiles as a form of adornment. The cars and trucks themselves were supposed to make some kind of statement. Barry’s black Trans-Am told us that he was a little dangerous…and that his dad had money. Carol’s little pink Honda told us that she was dainty and meticulous. Jeff’s muddy four-wheel drive truck with a gun rack told us that he would rather be driving around in the wilderness, looking for things to shoot, than at school “getting civilized.” If he could have mounted a deer-head somewhere in his truck, I’m sure he would have.
I drove a brown ’72 Buick Electra, an enormous rolling feast of metal, a car that could have eaten four of those pink Hondas and still had room for dessert. I believe it got seven or eight miles per gallon. I was always stopping to get gas, it seemed, or looking for ways to avoid having to parallel park. What kind of statement was I trying to make, driving such a behemoth of a car? That I was indifferent to conservation? That I saw myself not as a high school junior, but as a balding middle-aged insurance salesman with a wife and two children?
No, the only statement I was making was that I was happy to drive whatever car my dad was able to procure for me, through whatever means, as long as I did not have to give up my extracurricular activities, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, to help pay for it.
I didn’t do anything to dress it up, either. No fuzzy dice. Nothing glued to the dashboard. Not even a bumper sticker informing the world of my political prejudices or my quirky personality.
I guess it is fair to say that the only statement I was making was that I was apathetic about adornment as a teenager, as I have been ever since. At least until I bought that vase, which is not only beautiful, but a daily reminder that I should, at the very least, water my plants.