An Ikea State of Mind

From teenage runaway...
Our first apartment in LA, when she was a runaway…
Valley housewife
…and as a Valley housewife

The first thing we did when we moved to LA was go to Ikea. We bought plates and bowls, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, but it was notable for being the first time we had spent over $300 on domestic arrangements. An astronomical sum for us, and a stealth commitment to marriage.

Our kitchen may be larger now, but I see commonalities with the past:  Ongoing clutter. An obsession with condiments and spices. Animals underfoot.

It was easy to go to Ikea then. We had little money to spend, so there was little to argue over.  Our spending was aspirational, and therefore abundant:  when we have X, in the mid-future, we will be able to purchase Y. Or we can get Z.  I love Z!  Z would do nicely in the house, when we are able to buy one. Meanwhile we’ll avail ourselves of some $5 candlesticks.

Ikea was a benevolent doting grandmother steering young couples toward the altar.  Then it became a shrewish spinster aunt lurking in the attic, scheming to deny happiness to others.

Buying a house simplified matters. It made us too poor to shop to Ikea, or anywhere else. For the first decade, anyway. Now that we can return to Ikea and almost –almost- entertain the possibilities of the catalogue, we march alongside each other in silence, and leave cheerlessly with a bathmat, some glass jars and a stool.  She annoyed with my annoyance we still, at this late date, dine off mismatched countertops. I annoyed she can’t see how much better the food would taste if the backsplash tiles complemented the room.  Behold the peevish first world troubles of Mr. UpintheValley!

So….yesterday we toured the Brewery Art Walk, its labyrinth of studios and zoo-like glimpses into the domestic arrangements of the artists, who welcomed the curious hordes into their lofts with the cheery announcement that “everything was for sale”.

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Like a vulture, I found myself drawn to the kitchens, more than the work itself.  Simplicity reigned, but Ikea lurked in miniature: dish racks, silverware holders, cutting boards.

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This one looked like a set for a stage play. A period piece of long suppressed family secrets. The artist dined at her own table as though hundreds of strangers weren’t mere feet away, auditing her life and its works, which was in itself as much a work of performance art as anything on the walls.

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Small sinks, formica countertops, vintage stoves, linoleum tiles. Cool, yet impermanent.

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“You gotta see this,” said Andrew, leading me into a portrait studio of Swedish landscapes.  I was surrounded by iterations of a Don Draper-like man lounging in Ikea showrooms, meticulously recreated from photographs.

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The man was by turns contemplative, and possibly fearful of leaving the world in which he found himself.  To leave Ikea, said the artist, Rikki Niehaus, one enters a fallen world. A dystopia of ruin.

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I was looking at a version of myself on the wall, one with his loves not rightly ordered.  He stared back at me over my wife’s shoulder, implacable, imprisoned by caution.

Here I am, she said. There, you are not.

Rounding out a life with grace

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My dear friend Andy Hurvitz, of the indispensable HereinVanNuys blog, has been writing beautifully this past year about his mother’s twilight surrender to cancer, her denial of her illness, and their relationship to each other as he cared for her.   The Dark Wit, he called her.   Louise passed away last week. They had a wake for her yesterday at his brother’s house in Marina Del Rey.    I had never been to a wake, so my sense of what to expect was informed by films, and in this case I was misled.  No one was shrouded head-to-toe in black.  No murmuring organ. No flasks hidden inside of jacket pockets.   No receiving line of weeping well-wishers kissing the hand of the bereaved.  There were tears, but they were of the authentic, cathartic kind.

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It was more of an in-gathering of celebration.  There was a surfeit of delicious food, and no shortage of good wine, and bittersweet joy was the prevailing mood.   Look closely and you will see a teen-aged Andy with Louise on the screen in the left hand corner, his Andy-ness already evident in protozoa form.

Rick and Andy
Rick and Andy

First her sons spoke.  Then her friends.   Two women who were her sorority sisters at Delta Phi Epsilon, University of Illinois, sixty years ago spoke. I don’t even follow my college friends on Facebook. I can’t imagine a friendship of sixty-four years, but apparently she had several. Two brothers who hadn’t spoken in years were there, and they sat together and ended up talking to one another.    I learned she was a feminist before there was a word for it.  That she ran an office in an era when female college graduates worked the steno pool.  That she once sold airplanes.  That she worked for CBS news during the Nixon-Kennedy debates. That she read the New York Times cover to cover then hoarded all her back issues. That she enjoyed making prank phone calls. That she loved denying that which displeased her to the point of arguing to a judge the woman in the red-light camera photograph was not herself.

She had three sons, a long marriage, and a front row seat to American history, spanning WW II to Barack Obama. The people she loved also have people in their lives in turn, for whom they care and who get drawn into the circle of memory, and so after eighty-plus years, you have quite an eclectic group of people sharing the pathos under a rubber tree on a postcard beachside afternoon.   Exit ghost.

90% of life is showing up

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For the past ten days the eastern San Fernando Valley became, overnight,  a swing county in Ohio in a presidential election.  Which is to say, we were under the full siege of the Cindy-Nury political telenovela: door knockers, door hangers, mailers, phone calls, yard signs, tweets and texts.  Amidst this cacophony of the democratic process I received a knock on the door from my neighbor Walter, a Montanez volunteer.  Would I like to meet Cindy? ‘She’s gonna be in the neighborhood’ today. Of course I would. He promised to bring her by ‘sometime after 4pm.’  We put some wine in the fridge to chill, cracked open the hummus, and called my friend Andy Hurvitz, of the HereinVanNuys blog. ‘Cindy Montanez is dropping by. You want to meet her?’  Certainly. At 4pm, there the three of us were, glasses of rose in hand, snack bowls on the credenza, cameras and questions at the ready….

Giles and Andy, being patient
Giles and Andy, being patient

4:30 rolls around, no Cindy.  I check in with Walter. ‘It’ll be another hour or so. She’s still at the office.’  The hour goes by, the bottle of wine empties out.   We begin to fool around with cameras. I fire up the grill.  I call a second time for an ETA.  ‘Andy is here’, I offer as an inducement, ‘and he’s ready to blog.’ ‘Let me get back to you.’  Ten minutes later he calls back with regrets. ‘Cindy won’t be able to make it tonight.’  We wander out into the evening air and take snaps along the Metrolink tracks.  We happened upon this lovely couple on the Bridge of Sighs, who were happy to pose:

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Three days later, returning from yoga, I get another message from Walter. Please call.  Cindy will be back in the neighborhood tonight. I’ll bring her by. When? Six to seven-ish.  Andy returns.  A bottle of gewürztraminer and garlic crackers are laid out. More hummus.  Seven o’clock, no Cindy. Eight o’clock, no Cindy.  Now, the drill here is pretty simple. The candidate knocks. We exchange pleasantries. She declines the wine, but takes a cracker.  Looks us in the eye and lies to us about how she’s going to clean up Sepulveda Blvd. Everyone shakes hands and she goes on her way. Five minutes and it’s done. She gets a promotional photo from Andy and maybe some good copy.  Of course we both have fever dreams of beautification schemes we want to pitch, and maybe after a long day, the gewürztraminer might bribe some additional face time with the candidate…..but only if the candidate shows up. On the her hand, if she chooses not to come, for a second time…..by 8:30, we’re in the car, heading to Angel City Brewery for a flight of IPA and then to Wurstkuche for some exotic sausage.  Downtown east of Alameda, an area not long ago as run-down as the east Valley is today, was positively en fuego with nightlife, cuisine, commerce.  Joyful young and not-so young people out and about, enjoying t-shirt weather after midnight.  Quite another city,  yet entirely within my own.  Up in the valley, we’re still working on the basics, like awnings for bus stops and getting the police to arrest hookers plying the trade in broad daylight in front of schoolchildren:

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Driving home to our colonial outpost in the Valley, I was in a bad humor. Mrs. Upinthevalley took a more generous view. It’s the middle of an election. Walter was simply over-promising.  Perhaps. But he wasn’t inventing. Cindy knew who we were and she knew we were waiting, and she….made other priorities.   An avalanche of mailers and five more canvassers would hit our house in the final days, including three on Tuesday afternoon, in a scrambling panic as the poll watchers reported the grim news: people weren’t showing up to vote.  Her margin of defeat would turn out to be smaller than the combined traffic of our two blogs.  Enough said.

Cindy spent in excess of $100 a vote.  Her signs and foot soldiers were ubiquitous in Van Nuys. Cindy herself was a no-show.  Nury Martinez walked Sun Valley and Arleta door-to-door, in person. As Woody Allen put it: ‘90% of life is showing up’.   In politics apparently, there’s no substitute for shaking someone’s hand and bullshitting them.

The future of CD 6?
The future of CD 6?