I had lunch last week with a former college professor and his wife — dear friends who take an interest in my life and retirement-era writing well beyond coursework from last century. His “attaboys” on my current-century columns are especially treasured since he was once dubbed the best college journalism professor in the nation by a news-writing society. Based on his frank criticism of assignments submitted during olden days of learning spent in Burleson Quadrangle ivy-covered towers at Baylor University, I take his current positive feedback these days as genuine.
The couple’s house is on the market. Time for downsizing as is also the case with many of his students including me. Theirs is a lovely traditional home in one of Houston’s finer old neighborhoods. Since it’s the residence of a retired educator, there’s the requisite home library filled with books of all sorts (which have been somewhat thinned out for real estate “staging”). With a separate guest house and studio out back and the Rice University campus basically around the corner, the perfect home for persons of letters and accomplishment is available to view by appointment.
Over sandwiches and salads, I asked them about house-showing feedback. He chuckled. She knowingly glanced. A buyer’s agent had relayed the comment: “Why so many books?” Meanwhile their listing agent suggested they should hide the “Mein Kampf” which a visitor noticed on a bookshelf. Really? “Mein Kampf”: Adolf Hitler’s autobiography. It’s the same book firmly mashed under Rosie the Riveter’s foot in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting displayed at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art near my Bentonville, Ark. home. Had a small Rockwell reproduction been framed near the bookshelf as well, perhaps the Texas home browser’s fears would have been allayed.
The scene is amusing to consider: One real estate shopper focusing on one book among scores. Maybe the person was afraid to purchase a home from a skinhead Holocaust denier? Of course. That would surely be the case in this leafy, gentrified Houston ZIP code.
On the other hand, this is not funny. It indicates our collective state of frenzied hypersensitivity within any discussion of politics, race, religion and now, it appears, real estate. Better to put “braces on your brains” as suggested by the title movie character in “Auntie Mame.” Restage your thoughts, words and actions to become not only inoffensive but sanitized. Like an HGTV design color chart: Stick with French country white and subdued textiles and you’ll be OK.
Thus, I wondered what upsetting distractions lay among the books and bric-a-brac back home in Arkansas that would trigger a sensitivity meltdown if my place returns to market.
Entering my study, a Unitarian Universalist (or even a progressive Episcopalian) sees my framed college diploma from Baylor, that historically conservative Baptist university in Central Texas. Oh no, the seller must be a Branch Davidian zealot from Wacko-Waco! Square footage and bathroom count be damned! We’ll have none of this!
On the flipside, clippings of my opinion columns from this newspaper and others are in sight alongside an autographed Bill Moyers book. Surely, the homeowner is a liberal, fake news disseminator! The client in the MAGA hat pivots toward the door.
I understand providing ease in a home-showing environment. Fewer distractions keep one, whether seller or buyer, “on message” in marketing. There’s more than just a thing or two I learned about minimizing figurative clutter and streamlining the path to “yes” within three-plus decades of sales presentations to “big box” retailers.
But the pity is we citizens have become so compartmentalized with specific prejudices and predilections that our intellects can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. We read words, hear sound bites and view images from familiar, comfortable sources that deliver news and opinion supporting what we already know and feel. That’s not enlightenment. It’s merely reinforcement.
My social media friends are varied in background, age and party affiliation. I post fewer political comments and links than a few years ago after learning from both experience and social science that few opinions are swayed that way. Instead, I’ve become more selective in what I do share, hoping to steer toward conversation rather than confrontation. It sometimes works. If nothing else, I strive to be a humorous, equal-opportunity offender.
But I’m not selling a house when raising a political question or posting grandkid birthday pics on Facebook. Real estate is another matter. In that, better to repaint the front door cherry red, shampoo the carpets and thin the bookshelves, leaving only colorful, non-committal bindings in sight. Follow another cue from the “Auntie Mame” screenplay delivered by the nephew’s airhead, socialite fiancée: “Books are awfully decorative, don’t you think?”