Another Week Ends

Property Ownership and Murder Mysteries, Americans Ready to Look Hot, and a Prayer for This Easter Season

CJ Green / 4.9.21

1. On a walk last night, I spied a property for sale not far from the place I rent now. What possibly could be the asking price of a house with no renovations, one bathroom, an impractically small kitchen, and “loads of charm”? The answer nearly knocked me out. It was hard not to spend the rest of the evening on Zillow, comparing and contrasting, and trying to wrap my head around the skyrocketing prices nearby.

The term “housing crisis” means different things to different people. It might mean that there’s a shortage of livable spaces for low-wage workers in a pandemic; or it might mean that “I’ll be 69 when I have enough money for a down payment in LA,” as if every young person should be able to afford a down payment LA. The desire for housing feels innocent enough, but it can slide quickly into panic and envy and greed.

The writer Nora Caplan-Bricker noticed these darker underpinnings in herself; in a brilliant essay for the Point, she investigates their connection to, what else, the murder mysteries of Tana French:

[In] Tana French’s novels … the lust for property is always primary to the plot, and always somehow morally deforming. Her novels portray the pull of a hunger for ownership that we usually minimize in the name of social nicety; most of her stories turn on the insight that people will do anything for real estate. 

As Caplan-Bricker points out, the parallels between detective novels and property ownership are startling: both offer security. The detective promises answers — the mystery will be solved! — and ownership promises a similar closure.

In uncertain times, what could offer more pleasure than watching a superlatively rational protagonist establish facts, apportion blame and render the inexplicable clear? In a Tana French novel, medium mirrors message: both genre and plot enact a search for security. But the desire for property — and for what property represents, namely a sense of control, a feeling of permanence — always twists French’s characters into uncomfortable moral formations. […]

Home, in these novels, is a magnet that bends your mind out of shape — the place where your view of your own motivations is subject to the most profound distortion.

She quotes Stephen King on The Amityville Horror: “What it’s about is a young couple who’ve never owned a house before,” he once said, “and the horrible part is not that they can’t get out, but that they’re going to lose the house.”

I can easily call up the image of my life in the dream house, a composite of photos I’ve found on the internet that waits behind a door in my mind. … There I am, five, ten, twenty years from now, settling in the evenings in front of a cheerful fireplace (as the listings like to put it: “PREMIUM… This place has it all!”). It’s soothing to imagine that you know what’s coming … There’s something seductive about any story that justifies the impulse to turn inward, to reserve our attention for self-preservation.

What Caplan-Bricker is describing feels, to me, plainly spiritual. Whether we occupy an apartment, a house of our own, or a house that we owe on — we will always be a little homesick. We are “strangers and foreigners on the earth.” We are always jockeying for ownership in a world that is God’s, and refreshing Zillow may be a paltry, if perfectly modern, search for control in a world that is constantly shifting.

2. Of course Zillow isn’t the only place we search for our best lives. Another might be, for instance, our online shopping carts, full of items promising to make us look better; this is the subject of Amanda Mull’s fantastic article in the Atlantic this week.

Following a year of stymied social contact, Americans, according to Mull, “are ready to look hot again. They are ready to go out.” Whether through rigorous exercise or beauty products and procedures, people are anxious to be looked at while looking their best:

[B]eauty services seem to be offering exactly what so many people have been craving after a year of self-abnegation: a first taste of post-pandemic comfort and a modicum of control over how they enter the future. […]

Wanting to exert some control over your appearance is, as it turns out, a pretty universal impulse.  … “In the last three months, I’ve had more people come to me with curiosity about [Botox],” says [Amanda] Mitchell, who has used Botox in the past. These friends had never shown interest before, but a combination of boredom, anxiety, and hope seemed to have opened their mind. Catastrophes have a way of doing that to people; research suggests that extreme stress makes people more likely to significantly change their appearance. The classic example is cutting post-breakup bangs, but maybe surviving a global pandemic requires something subdermal. […]

“I just really don’t want to physically show how hard the year was on my body. I don’t want the world to see that.”

How we shape and maintain our appearance is a social task — our bodies do so much communicating on our behalf, and being seen by people we care about is a fundamental part of our mental health. For many people, 2020 lacked positive, social, in-person opportunities to have their humanity reflected back at them, a stress that eventually became visible in their stooped shoulders or thinning hair or dry skin. Those moments of connection are returning, little by little, along with many of the other joys that make up a human life. For people anticipating a return to the physical world, being able to stake some claim on how they will do it is a comfort, after a year in which any particular individual controlled so little of their fate.

3. Related: “Woman Hopeful She Can Course-Correct Entire Life in Time With Society Reopening.”

While her current path would have her emerging from lockdown socially isolated, jobless, anxious, and existentially astray, Hynes is optimistic she can undo all of that real quick in time for this summer.

4. In regards to getting one’s life in order (but actually this time), the person to consult is Oliver Burkeman. In his latest from The Imperfectionist, Burkeman points out that it is easier to accomplish tasks when they are physical; by contrast, immaterial tasks (for example, online) are easier to lose track of. What begins as self-help advice quickly becomes philosophical:

[I]n the purely mental realm of ideas, and the immaterial realm of the internet, it feels as though no limits apply. You get to pretend you’re a god. There’s always another initiative you could launch, another piece of preparatory research you could do, another message you could send or reply to. Plus you never quite have to confront the question of whether there’s enough time for all you plan to accomplish — because in a purely immaterial world, you can always squeeze more in.

But it’s a fantasy: since you won’t ever accomplish anything except in collaboration with the realm of the physical and limited, you feel a growing sense of dissonance, of having less purchase on life, and you lose the sense of having some effect on reality that’s central to wellbeing. 

Defining your work in terms of physical actions and outcomes slices through all that, because it forces a confrontation with limitation.

5. Some humor: The Real Reasons I Am Returning My Purchase Versus the Reasons I Claimed. Also good: How to Journal Without Trying to Convince Your Journal That You’re Cool. And some niche beer/God humor from Sloan Green at McSweeney’s.

6. In the latest entry for his “How to Build a Life” column, Arthur C. Brooks urges us to make friends we don’t need. In other words: real friends, not deal friends. “Deal friends,” as Brooks defines them, are friends who can help get us where we want to go; they’re expedient. “Expedient friendships might be a pleasant — and certainly useful — part of life, but they don’t usually bring lasting joy and comfort.” Because the most valuable things are not necessarily productive.

The key to building perfect friendships [a term borrowed from Aristotle] is to see relationships not as stepping stones to something else, but as boons to pursue for their own sake. One way to do this is to make friends not just outside your workplace, but outside all of your professional and educational networks. … It simply requires showing up in places that are unrelated to your worldly ambitions. Whether it is a house of worship, a bowling league, or a charitable cause unrelated to your work, these are the places where you meet people who might be capable of sharing your loves, but without advancing your career. When you meet someone you like, don’t overthink it: Invite them over.

In our go-go world, where professional success is valorized above all else and workism has become like a religion to many, it can be easy to surround ourselves with deal friends. In so doing, we can lose sight of the most basic of human needs: to know others deeply and to be deeply known by them. Christians and followers of other faiths place this deep knowing at the heart of their relationship with God, and it is central to achieving change in psychotherapy.

One of the great paradoxes of love is that our most transcendental need is for people who, in a worldly sense, we do not need at all.

7. The author Darcey Steinke recently wrote about the career of musician Nick Cave, in “God Is in the House,” a compendium of evocative quotes from the likes of Cave, Faulkner, Elvis, Al Green, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and more. Fans of any of those ought to bookmark this longread and consume it in toto. Quite the essay!

‘All the best people,’ my friend recently said to me at our red wine lunch, ‘are dinged up a little.’ What makes a living person or a fictional character unique is not perfection but their flaws and scars. […]

God’s redemptive gift of grace can be experienced in Cave’s songs by anyone, the more dinged up the better … Like Faulkner’s ‘strange religion’, Cave is not interested in easy born-again redemption. … No. They were drawn like particles toward a magnet, like an electrified atom of authentic mystery, to a raw — almost bloody — sensitivity, to an awareness ‘in which life itself is lived more intensely and with a meaningful direction’.

William James, the nineteenth-century philosopher, speculated that belief was a form of magnetic energy that pulled the believer almost unconsciously in one direction or another. ‘It is as if a bar of iron, without touch or sight, with no representative faculty whatever, might nevertheless be strongly endowed with an inner capacity for magnetic feeling; and as if, through the various arousals of its magnetism by magnetic comings and goings in the neighborhood, it might be consciously determined to different attitudes and tendencies. Such a bar of iron,’ James continues, ‘could never give you an outward description of the agencies that had the power of stirring it so strongly; yet of their presence, and of their significance for its life, it would be intensely aware through every fibre of its being.’

She breaks down Cave’s career into his Old Testament phase, and the New:

In the New Testament, Cave explained on the radio, ‘I slowly reacquainted myself with the Jesus of my childhood, that eerie figure that moves through the Gospels, the man of sorrows, and it was through him that I was given a chance to redefine my relationship with the world. The voice that spoke through me now was softer, sadder, more introspective.’

Who is Cave’s Jesus? He is first and foremost a storyteller, an artist even, a being whose imagination was both laser-like and unrestrained. … ‘Christ, it seemed to me,’ says Cave, ‘was the victim of humanistic lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity.’

8. At Christianity Today, Brandon Smith and Madison Pierce examine the mystery of the incarnation.

Also in religion-themed links, I deeply appreciated Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Eastertide prayer, with the heading, “Resurrection Isn’t Reversal.” Bolz-Weber beautifully braids together the hope of reopenings with the season of Easter:

I’m wondering — that one dawn, so many years ago, when Jesus came out of his own tomb, did he step haltingly toward the light or did he run? Did he know who he was right away, or did that take a minute? Did he harbor resentments about his faltering friends or was he free?

I’m asking because many of us are stepping into the first light of a post-pandemic dawn and one minute I want to run full speed and the next I am unable to move. And If I talk too much about what was lost, I feel like a bummer but if I talk at all about the unexpected gifts, I feel like I’m callous. And I’m not sure I can ever be who I was before, but I’m also not totally sure who everyone else is now, either.

My Easter request is this: Help us remember that resurrection isn’t reversal, that as we return to life, we are carrying our own wounds from loss and isolation. But we are also emerging with new beauty and new wisdom. We are not who we were. But we do get to discover who we are.