Life Imitates Cheap Art

2 Oct

When the foundation of your house crumbles and collapses:

How can you be sure which movie you’re in?

A house with no foundation. Supported by a few temporary I-beams.

With an image like that, this must be the movie about my mid-life crisis.

Julia Roberts, as mid-40s me, everywoman, in faded jeans and a t-shirt, is suddenly gripped by the fear that everything she built her life on (including a brick foundation) is dust in the wind.

It’s Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin, Americanized, with pony-tail.

That sounds unlikely. And I’ve never really liked Levin.

Maybe this story is not about me at all:

The other day,
as my son was leaving the house,
one of the demolition team said to him (jokingly):

You’d think your parents could have given you a house with a foundation.

He laughed:

Nope, I’m on my own.

And I landed in another film altogether:

A boy, on the brink of manhood, against the backdrop of his parents’ no-longer-sturdy house, confronts the thrill and terror of impending independence.

Julia’s out of the picture. She’ll never agree to a mere supporting role, especially as the mother of a teenager. On the upside, that’s not my exposed furnace and water heater the neighbors have been gawking at; it’s my son’s coming-of-age story.

Or, here’s one more possibility:

Perhaps the micro implies the macro.

Perhaps the foundation of my house is sacrificed so that I (and the audience) will contemplate the crumbling American economy and the collapse of the American dream. We’ll use Laura Linney instead of Julia. This is a serious piece.

Yesterday, the masons arrived. Two men from Poland: friendly, polite, capable.

By the time I get home from work, I have a new foundation wall.

I get out of my car, and though I refrain from singing “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła”, I do greet them with my best “Dzień dobry!” and a few other Polish pleasantries.

They are surprised and pleased that I speak Polish. I am surprised and pleased that I remember some Polish. Consonants all over the place. For a moment, life is beautiful.

They say that some of the bricks from the old foundation are salvageable and may make a nice patio.


50 Responses to “Life Imitates Cheap Art”

  1. Mark Workman October 2, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    The wise (wo)man builds her house upon a solid foundation. I’m sure your son has had that all along. I’m in the minority, maybe, but I like Laura Linney more than Julia Roberts. Keep these blog entries coming.

    • jenny October 3, 2010 at 7:18 am #

      Yep. I like Helen Mirren more than either of them, but she’s got that English thing going on.

  2. Philippe October 2, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    This is so……………, like, Jungian.

    I mean, in a dream the foundations of a building (cellars, basement) represent the unconscious. With your own house, the furnace and water heater (repressed memories) in the basement are now exposed for all to see (repressions are now conscious).

    Hence, would it be wise for you to shield again the furnace and water heater from public view, so to re-repress?

    You invoked Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin. However, now that Jonathan Franzen is emerging as America’s Tolstoy, you might better have invoked a character out of “Freedom” or “The Corrections”.

    • jenny October 3, 2010 at 7:24 am #

      OK, Philippe, I can see that I’m going to have to read “Freedom”, and not just read about it. I’m on it.

      Then, perhaps, I will stop evoking Russia’s Franzen.

      I am re-repressing just as quickly as I can, rest assured. Certainly needs to happen before the Illinois winter hits.

      • Philippe October 3, 2010 at 8:52 am #

        I have a confession. I, too, haven’t read “Freedom”.

        I was all set to go out and buy it. Then I read *this review of it* in the Atlantic.

        Now I’m not so sure that I will buy “Freedom”.

      • jenny October 4, 2010 at 7:07 am #

        Thanks, Philippe! Sounds perfectly dreadful, doesn’t it?

        Honestly, I’ve had this inkling all along. Please tell me that you will no longer suggest that I might inhabit this novel.

  3. Thomas Stazyk October 2, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    Is there any chance your son’s memoir will be titled The Boy in the Pink House?

    • jenny October 3, 2010 at 7:26 am #

      My greater fear, Tom, is that my son’s memoir will be titled The Boy in the Yellow House.*

      * “Yellow House” is the Russian term for the loony bin.


    • solidgoldcreativity October 3, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

      ha ha 🙂

  4. Cheri October 3, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    Do you think the Polish masons would agree that the American Dream is dead? Maybe.

    And as the mother of a son who made it through his long walk to manhood–I actually encouraged him to thru-walk all 2860 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail–I will say that my wine drinking did increase during those 4 months.

    I’d wake up in the middle of the night and ask my husband, what if he (my son) has an appendicitis attack in the middle of nowhere? And so on and so on.

    Now, back to the American Dream. What is it? (As an American lit teacher for 26 years, I did ask this question more than once.) What is it? Is it the power behind Ma Joad’s strength? Or is it the miserable lie of Willy Loman? Was it John Proctor’s insistence that a name is more important than life itself?

    What is the American Dream?

    • jenny October 4, 2010 at 7:02 am #

      Cheri, after the gig at my house, the Polish masons are probably believers in the American dream: They were not free masons. ba dum bum.

      What is the American dream? Is this a teaser for your next post? I just think it’s funny that we have a dream. What other nation has a dream? As for what it is, I’ll let you tackle that.

      I’m so glad that you mentioned appendicitis. You’ve made me reflect on how weird it is that I wanted to boast about my sick foundation. Who broadcasts this sort of thing?

      I’m now working on a parody (starring myself) of Bemelmans’ Madeline. Look for this line:

      And all her friends and neighbors cried, “Boo Hoo! We want to have our foundations out too!”

  5. Andreas Kluth October 3, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    @Philippe and I seem to have the same way of compiling our readings lists.

    I, too, read the review in the Atlantic and decided to skip this one. In any case, I’ve now read enough ABOUT it that I think I know what I’m missing.

  6. Andreas Kluth October 3, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Oh, and I viewed your picture very differently from the rest of you: I live in earthquake country. Would those stilts holding up your I-beams still hold anything if we shook that ensemble a little bit?

    • jenny October 4, 2010 at 7:08 am #

      Good thing I didn’t read this comment before the foundation walls went up.

      Mean. Mean. Mean.

  7. solidgoldcreativity October 3, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

    Jenny, your son sounds like a chip off the middle-aged, ponytailed block: very smart and sassy 🙂 I do like how your house matches your blog. Life must be very different inside a pink house, like life with a blue guitar.

    BTW, I think you’re too rough on Levin. He is painfully honourable (an American flavour I think) and a bit of a thicky (definitely no comment), yet I loved him for that brief shining moment of the riskiest word play in literature, the proposal.

    • jenny October 4, 2010 at 7:15 am #


      BTW, “painfully honourable” as an American flavor is funny, funny, funny!

      • solidgoldcreativity October 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

        thank you for reminding me of life ? pony tail ??

      • jenny October 6, 2010 at 7:49 am #

        Golly, SCG, for the first half dozen words, I thought we were a match!

        I meant:

        “Thank you for reminding me of Levin’s dorky proposal to Kitty.”

        I’m afraid I cannot marry you.

  8. Mr. Crotchety October 4, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    A stranger said to me once, “you’re lucky if you got problems that money can fix.” Have you ever heard that? I was offended at first. I’m not rich! I was raised better than that! Money seems best suited to solving problems that money creates. What is cheap art (or cheap anything)? A foundation seems inexpensive when you’ve got a problem that money won’t solve. But money could make a midlife crisis or being a teenager or having Parkinson’s disease less embarassing.

    Calgon, take me away!

    • jenny October 4, 2010 at 7:22 am #

      At the end of the first day of demolition, I came home and laughed at the impressive mess. The head of the demolition team said, “You’re awful cheerful about this.”

      I said, “It ain’t cancer.”

      It’s OK. The whole job was done for the (as I’ve been told) price of a kitchen remodel. Luckily for me, I’m afraid of improvements like kitchen remodeling because….

      (please see response to your next comment)

  9. Mr. Crotchety October 4, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    (rather, how can I be sure which TV ad I’m in?)

    • jenny October 4, 2010 at 7:23 am #

      …they make me afraid that I might be in a TV ad.

      Cheers, Mr. C!

    • Cheri October 4, 2010 at 10:48 am #

      You’ll be that fella sitting on a park bench, a sleeping bloodhound at your feet. You’ll be wearing a porkpie hat, tipped to the right for style.

      Your eyes watch the parade passing by.

      You record it all.

      “Come on,Duke, let’s be getting along home.”

  10. Mr. Crotchety October 4, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Laura Linney, I remember. The Truman Show.

    • jenny October 5, 2010 at 5:38 am #

      Thanks for pointing that out. The Truman Show kind of works with my theme.

      Perhaps you would also be so kind as to point out (ecstatically!) that the Polish national anthem, mentioned here, begins: Poland has not perished yet, as long as we are alive.

      OK, that’s asking a lot.

  11. Philippe October 4, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    @ Jenny – “….Please tell me that you will no longer suggest that I might inhabit this novel…..”

    OK OK, I promise.

    I think, though, that despite the Atlantic’s review of “Freedom”, I will end up reading this novel because it seems a mirror reflecting back at us the faces of us twenty-first century moderns.

    Should we not have the fortitude to face the truth about ourselves in this mirror, no matter how unappetising?

    By the way, here’s a blog entry from the Economist’s “Prospero” about *the reading habits of males and females*, which you may find of some interest.

    “Prospero” also *has this*, about the late Russian author, Vasily Grossman, described as the “Tolstoy of the USSR”.

    • jenny October 5, 2010 at 5:51 am #


      OK, I, too, will find the fortitude to sit in Borders with “Freedom” and face my 21st Century self in the mirror. It may call for a large Zen green tea.

      The name Prospero, alone, raises my spirits. And I’m glad that Grossman gets this kind of attention.

      As for the never-ending male/female debate, I’m taking my cue from your man Bertrand Russell: listen, don’t talk.

  12. david osman October 4, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    i have a frient who is an icon painter. whem he lived in russia he decided he needs to spend some time alone and left for the deep forest on the border between ukraine and poland. at some point he was detained by soviet border guards and was interrogated. he though that he might be killed during interrogation. he closed hih eyes and stopped talking. when he was asked by the lead interrogator “why is he doing that” he replied – i am watching a movie. he told me he believes that it saved his life. Guards thought that he is crazy and let him go. call me crazy but i keep my eyes closed so i could see my american drem again and again and i would ask my daughter to join me in watching the show

    • Cheri October 4, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

      The American dream still exists. In my world, most of my Asian, Vietnamese, Korean, and East Indian clients are living it.

      One can be as cynical as one can be, but opportunities still abide.

    • jenny October 5, 2010 at 6:01 am #

      @David: Gary Shteyngart recently spoke to a group of students and began his presentation (wisely!) by explaining what the Soviet Union was. It might as well be the Ottoman Empire.

      If you do not get these memories down on paper, they will be lost. Seriously.

      @Cheri: Mexicans, too, probably. Though perhaps they are a little dismayed. It’s the opposite of cynicism to talk about our fears of losing the American dream, whatever it might be.

  13. Cheri October 5, 2010 at 10:10 am #


    But you will admit that cynicism is the beginning of the rot that will destroy the crop.

    My children have endured some of the most cynical teachers the world could find, those deserving of their own circle in Dante’s hell.

    Cynicism is a bitter and vicious disease akin to the worst of cancers.

    I preach to my students (even at my ripe age) to guard against it.

    • Philippe October 5, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

      @ Cheri – “……Cynicism is a bitter and vicious disease akin to the worst of cancers……..”

      Nowhere does one find this cynicism more than in so much contemporary literature. For instance, from what I’ve read about Jonathan Franzen’s much acclaimed “Freedom” and the few extracts I’ve read from it, it is pervaded with cynicism. The writer would appear to despise his characters.

      For me, reading contemporary fiction is a downer more often than not – no doubt because of the cynicism.

      • Cheri October 5, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

        Me too, Phillipe.
        But there are those, especially in the media, literature, academia ( I am seeing this at Stanford)and in bastions of modern culture that thrive on cynicism, almost like vampires existing on blood.

  14. rosaria October 5, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    I just finished my memoir, the story of a young immigrant finally fulfilling her family’s dream to come to America. I could ponder on the American Dream for another ten years, and still not truly and fully comprehend how we all have constructed this collective dream.

    I love this post, the idea of foundations, of strong supports keeping safe from harm. There is a lot here to ponder over.

    • Cheri October 5, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

      Congratulations, Rosaria, on finishing your memoir!

    • jenny October 6, 2010 at 7:39 am #

      Rosaria, I was actually just reading the beginnings of your immigrant story and I will continue. It’s a topic that really interests me. In your story, it surprised me that you came alone. Talk about heroism!

      There is a marvelous play by Slawomir Mrozek called “The Immigrants” that you should try to catch if there is ever a production in your area.


  15. Philippe October 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    @ Jenny, Cheri, and others

    How about that cynicism and the “American Dream” go together?

    If we accept for the purposes of this discussion that “American Dream” means middle-class affluence (split-level house bought and paid for, two-car garage, children in university, and all of that), has all this brought about the happiness that was anticipated?

    Likely the answer is “no”.

    It’s not just in America, but anywhere in the “developed” world, we have lots and lots of stuff in our affluent suburban homes, but we are becoming more and more anxious, more and more unhappy. The more things we have, the more things we have to lose. The more “security” we have, the less “secure” we feel.

    And our scientists tell us that we are no more than an accidental collocation of atoms in a cold and meaningless universe. We simply end up as bones rotting in the wind.

    So we become cynics, and ask:

    Is that all there is,
    Is that all there is,
    If that’s all there is, my friends,
    Then let’s keep dancing,
    Let’s break out the booze,
    And have a ball,
    If that’s all….there is.

    • Richard October 6, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

      O no, Philippe! That’s not cynicism. It’s unjustified despair.

      You describe the stuff that dreams are made of.

    • Mr. Crotchety October 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

      @Phillipe The term American Dream was highjacked (uh oh, more terrorists) by advertisers and politicians in order to sell us stuff. We each have (ipso facto) an American Dream. Some are more creative and less willing to settle than others. For many years the American Dream was more readily available in… America.

      • Philippe October 7, 2010 at 1:44 am #

        Since Christmas was long ago hijacked by advertisers, it’s not surprising that the American Dream was hijacked by them also.

  16. Richard October 6, 2010 at 6:09 pm #

    Did you discover a subterranean prime mortgage by any chance?

    That’s what you call an American nightmare.

  17. jenny October 6, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    @Richard: I make stuff up. Don’t you? This is about the American nightmare in my soul–there’s no mortgage for it. 🙂

    @Philippe: Here is a Zbigniew Herbert poem that I love and it answers all manner of despair, justified and un. Perhaps you will like it too.

    I Would Like to Describe

    I would like to describe the simplest emotion
    joy or sadness
    but not as others do
    reaching for shafts of rain or sun

    I would like to describe a light
    which is being born in me
    but I know it does not resemble
    any star
    for it is not so bright
    not so pure
    and is uncertain

    I would like to describe courage
    without dragging behind me a dusty lion
    and also anxiety
    without shaking a glass full of water

    to put it another way
    I would give all metaphors
    in return for one word
    drawn out of my breast like a rib
    for one word
    contained within the boundaries
    of my skin

    but apparently this is not possible

    and just to say — I love
    I run around like mad
    picking up handfuls of birds
    and my tenderness
    which after all is not made of water
    asks the water for a face

    and anger
    different from fire
    borrows from it
    a loquacious tongue

    so is blurred
    so is blurred
    in me
    what white-haired gentlemen
    separated once and for all
    and said
    this is the subject
    this is the object

    we fall asleep
    with one hand under our head
    and with the other in a mound of planets

    our feet abandon us
    and taste the earth
    with their tiny roots
    which next morning
    we tear out painfully

    • Philippe October 7, 2010 at 1:56 am #

      @ Jenny – Thank you for this poem. It needs to be read many times over, and felt, not explained.

      Regarding the American Dream, do you know a song by Ray Davies of the Kinks, called “Shangri-La”, which he recorded around 1970?

      It’s about a fear-ridden man living the British version of the American Dream. It could mutatis mutandis describe the American Dream also.

      Here’s a quite recent *live performance* of Shangri-La. You just might like it.

  18. Richard October 7, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    I like the words “The American Dream” for the very reason that they attach to nothing and can be used for anything, anywhere at any time, as required.

  19. Paul Costopoulos October 7, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    A dream is a dream, an unreal and immaterial thing and should remain just that.
    A wish is something we strive for and want to become real.
    So should the “American dream” be renamed “American wish” or “Wishful thinking” or just plain “American ambition and riches craving”?

  20. jenny October 7, 2010 at 7:15 am #

    Thank you, all of you, for your comments.

    Philippe, thank you for the link. I will listen.

    I tend to agree with Mr. C: Advertisers AND politicians hijack equally well. Good thing they don’t care much about poetry.

    Paul, can we sell any of your suggestions to Madison Avenue?

    • Paul Costopoulos October 7, 2010 at 12:35 pm #

      Madison Avenue? You are pulling my leg, right? You could try, but you will not get much.

  21. Cheri October 7, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    The Dude is an excellent example of the American Dream.

    In what other country could the Dude abide?

  22. jenny October 7, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    @Philippe: I do like it, very much. Thank you. My mind goes to the Talking Heads on this subject: “Same as it ever was…”

    Even before you posted this link, I was going to say, as an answer to Peggy Lee’s question, that sometimes there is also an unexpected gift from a stranger.

    @Cheri: The American Dream: Bowling. Driving around. The occasional acid flashback.

    (Finally, folks, this post has done very well. Next week, I write about how I totaled my car.)

  23. Cheri October 8, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    You totaled your car?

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