Here’s my column in yesterday’s Greenville News.  ‘The Real Sometimes Collides with the Ideal.’ Or my personal title, ‘the dangers of house-porn.’

southern living idea house 4

My wife and I were sitting and chatting about the holidays last week. She was thumbing through that most terrifying of all magazines, ‘Southern Living.’ I’m sure you’ve seen it. The pages are meant to represent the elegance and culture of the modern South. It is filled with beautiful photos of spotless homes, with neat, well-arranged furniture and sparkling floors and counter-tops. The food in the kitchens is stored like art-work. The porches, the verandas as clean and perfect as the day the builders and painters shook hands, collected checks and walked away.

Where humans appear, they are smiling, happy, well put-together and stylish. At worst, the children are in swimsuits on sunny beaches. And the children seem to have been programmed not to clutter. The toys are absent, or arranged as if by some Feng Shui master to illustrate that Southern children are, like their mothers, elegant.

Clothes do not lie on the floor. Food does not stain the counter. Plates do not fill the sink. Beach sand is absent from the steps. No husband lounges happily before his flat screen in torn jeans, throwing popcorn at his kids open mouths. No child is pinning a sibling to the floor, trying to lick him as a form of torture.

Southern living, in short, is a beautiful, venerable publication, like so many of the same genre, which represents ideals. We love ideals. Especially in the South, and especially at the holidays. We have perfect images of how things should be, and they are often of spacious, bright, airy homes, perfect family gatherings, exquisite meals and quiet children. But, as T.S. Eliot said, ‘Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.’

So back to our conversation. Jan said, ‘Do you see that? Her house isn’t cluttered! Look how clean the floors are!’

I responded, ‘Honey, what you have there is house-porn. It’s like me, holding up a Victoria’s Secret magazine, pointing to a model, and saying, ‘see her? Why don’t you look like a 19-year-old lingerie model (anymore)?’

There was a pause; a scary, dangerous pause, then to my immense relief, she laughed. (Whew!)

Our house is cluttered for the same reason our bodies change. Life does that sort of thing. Life is about the mixture of heavenly dreams and earthly ideals; the way things might be, stirred up with the way things are.

So, our house is cluttered because there are parents, kids, cats and cousins. Friends drop by. We eat, play and laugh. We study and create. My daughter leaves Barbie clothes lying about. My boys scatter rocks, knives, axes and tools. Both genders drop books everywhere. The cats erupt with random fur-balls.

As for us? We humans change. I long ago accepted that I do not have the same fitness or shape that I had in college. Good food and sloth changed all that. And I love my wife’s body, not as it was, but as it is; the gift of child-birth changed her. Real women, unlike lingerie models, have curves and messed-up hair at day’s end. They wear t-shirts to bed instead of leopard print, but look just as alluring to their over-weight, mid-life husbands.

Real houses, cluttered and filled with laughter, chaos, food and love, are as wonderful as any perfect ideal of ‘house.’ They are delightful like our wives at end of day, or our children covered in mud and chocolate.

This season, we husbands ought to care for our wives and try to make their dreams of order and cleanliness come true. It’s a nice gift to give. I speak to myself as well, an inveterate clutterer. It will be easier, as we have far fewer tiny toys coming into our children’s lives as they get older. And it will be easier because I know how much it means to my wife.

However, this concept of the real versus ideal applies equally to our celebration of the Christmas season. There are the celebrations and gatherings, even feelings, we covet; the perfect images of which we dream. But life forces us to come to the season as we are, as we find it; with actual families, houses, budgets and time constraints.

Fortunately, the manger in Bethlehem was, after all, mererly a manger, fodder, dirt, beasts and all. And as she delivered the very embodiment of all our ideals, I am confident that neither Mary nor Joseph were distracted, or discouraged, by reading ‘Better Sheds and Mangers.’

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