I love looking at other people's homes for much the same reason I love listening to people tell personal stories: I get to judge them. So I was totally into Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, a book about an 11-year UCLA project studying the homes of 32 Southern California self-described middle-class families with two working parents and two or three kids at home. It is one of the most amazingly depressing things I've read: a study of clutter, consumerism, chaos, Costco and, in the saddest cases, cats.
Soon, though, I started to wonder how my house compared with the average middle-class family's. So I invited Jeanne Arnold, who led the project, over to catalog my stuff. Arnold, an archaeologist who studies prehistoric California, is interested in what she calls "the centrality of possessions in personality identity formation." Which is exactly the right idea, in exactly the wrong words, for a Jay-Z song.
As soon as Arnold walked into my house, she looked at my refrigerator, which is what I do when I walk into anyone's house. But she didn't open it. Instead, she looked at our magnets. Arnold had found a pretty direct correlation between the number of objects tacked to a refrigerator and the amount of clutter in the house. "I saw two refrigerators that had nothing," she said, "and they were not magnetized." The average family had 52 items on the refrigerator. We have 51. One, oddly, is a New Yorker cartoon I had never noticed that says, "Only the rich can afford this much nothing."
But because none of the items are on the front of the fridge and most are tiny magnets and because she knew I was writing about her, Arnold said it was one of the neatest fridges she had seen. Which reflected the house, which she said wasn't cluttered. Better yet, she said the clutter we do have is unusual, which made me nervous that she had opened some drawers she should not have opened. But that wasn't it. "You have far more books than the typical L.A. house," she said, meaning that we have books. We also have more wine, wine maps, wine books and giant vases holding wine corks. She thought this all made our home "very French." For those of you who aren't liberal, trust me: the only bigger compliment an academic can give a journalist than "very French" is "very, very French."
Unlike 78% of families, we don't have a TV in our bedroom, because my wife and I decided that the only two proper uses for a bedroom are sleeping and not having sex. Like 47% of the families, we don't have a second fridge, but unlike 75% of them, we don't use our garage solely for storage. The average family had on display 438 books and magazines, 212 CDs, 90 DVDs and VHS tapes and 139 toys. The U.S. has 3.1% of the world's kids and 40% of its toys. We also are responsible for 40% of the world's military spending, which, I now believe, is to prevent other countries' kids from taking our toys.
I was feeling pretty suprieur until Arnold saw our walk-in closet. "My mother can compete with your wife for clothing, but she's got 50 years on your wife," she said. The average family had 39 pairs of shoes; my wife has 70. To put that in perspective, it means that my wife can wear a different pair of shoes every day for 70 days.