The North American Love Affair with “Practical”. Whaaaaa?
“They’re ridiculous. They’re way too high. You should take them back immediately and get a practical pair of walking shoes.”
I’m admiring my strappy sandals in the mirror in my parents’ bedroom, the only full-length mirror in their house, and that’s my father’s (unsolicited) feedback.
“You can’t wear those in the airport. You’re going to trip and break your ankle. Are you going to wear those in Trinidad?”
“Every damn day”, I say, silently. “Every day,” I say, out loud.
“You need a pair of walking shoes,” he says.
“I don’t think BCBG does walking shoes, yet,” I say.
I wish I could say this scene was from my teens, when my dad encouraged me to cut my hair because long locks are impractical (and leave strands everywhere and therein was the real issue) but it was yesterday. I’m thirty-nine and I’m in Vancouver, at their house, for a couple of weeks.
The whole situation is impractical: we have a car in storage, our belongings in storage, and we’re living in Trinidad ’til the end of Loverloverman’s project. We don’t own a home – hell, we don’t even rent a home – and I’m traipsing back and forth from Canada to Trinidad, Canada to Trinidad, Canada to Trinidad, with three kids in tow.
And I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
I’m even happy at the tire shop, where my Dad and I are seeing about the flat tire on the car that’s been in storage for months. It’s Loverloverman’s 1976 Cadillac. When you sit in it, you feel like you should sing bowchickawowwow. If you turn on the radio, you expect to hear Barry White. Know what I’m saying? The car is ridiculous. I swear a tank of gas takes us half a block. (“When you have a V8, you never pass a gas station without stopping,” he tells me. We stop 86 times per day.). It’s currently in the shop for oh, everything. It doesn’t have cup-holders but it does have ashtrays in the backseat which means your eight year old doesn’t have to throw her butts out the window, which is nice. No one likes litter. And no one in their right-thinking, practical minds would have bought this car.
I love Loverloverman’s car. It’s utterly impractical. It makes me smile. It makes him smile. When he asked my opinion about whether he should get it, that’s what I thought about. He works so hard, in camps in the Arctic, camps in the jungle. He should have a ridiculous car that makes him smile. “Get it,” I told him. “You deserve it.”
So. We’re at the tire shop. My dad is helping me see about this ridiculous car. We’re waiting. I’m waiting. I’m looking at rims. I want to get Loverloverman some hawt rims for this car that makes him smile. In fact, it’s a line item in the hopeful version of our fall budget. My dad says “If you get rims before you get a house, I’ll kill you.”
I’m a little taken aback. Not about the threat – it sounds way worse in text than in person – but about the lack of clarity in the threat. “Do you mean before we buy a house? Or rent a house? Because we’re not ready to buy a house yet. We don’t even know where F is going to be, where we’re going to live. If we wait to finish this car til we buy a house , we’ll all be driving hovercrafts to work.”
He meant renting a place. And with that joke I realized my parents are worried. We don’t have a permanent place to live so we’re a step away from vagrancy. We’re going to end up living in that damn car.
It hurts my heart to make them worry.
But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
My new blonde hair isn’t practical – I go to the salon every four weeks. Manicures and pedicures aren’t practical either (every two weeks). High heels aren’t practical, unless of course you want an eighteen year old boy to dust the ground you walk on. (I do.) Travelling isn’t practical and travelling 17 hours each way with a baby, every month, is even less practical.
But what’s up with our love affair with practical? A friend buys a sexy dress and wants to tell me how many times and places she can wear it and what a great deal it was. Another justifies her new, luxury car by the amount she’ll save on maintenance. I justify Loverloverman’s car by the magnitude of his sacrifice – his job is my definition of hell – and calculate the cost per wear of an expensive diaper bag that later could be a laptop case. Everything – shoes, dresses, cars, bags – and everyone must multi-task to justify their existence. That’s just practical.
And then we make excuses for our t-shirts and pony-tails and yoga-pants-as-day-wear with “I have kids, I’m running around, it’s practical.”
I’m not saying you have to dress up. I’m really not. I’m just saying that we use “practical” as an excuse for not trying. “Practical” is so culturally revered that it has become a bullet-proof excuse for anything. Saying “it’s not practical” ends an argument or dams the most torrential of critiques. Immediately.
So practical is an excuse for not trying and a justification for striving, achieving, indulging.
Because pretty things, luxuries are suspect. If they’re not practical, what’s their purpose?
Jeans are practical. Dresses, apparently, are not (I would argue, but that’s another blog.) Running shoes – or comfortable walking shoes – are practical. Heels are not. Mini-vans not vintage cadillacs are practical but I’m pretty sure no French woman will ever write a book called The Style Secrets of the Suburban North American Woman.
Or man. Because my father – The Shoe Oracle – wears socks with sandals.
So this is what I’m wondering: what’s up with the North American obsession with practical?
(And with socks + sandals?!)
Why can’t we appreciate something just because it’s beautiful?
Why can’t we allow ourselves luxuries?
Why must we justify indulgences with a veneer of practicality?
Allow yourself beauty. Allow yourself luxury. (Luxury is a state, not a price.) Make no excuses for your desires.
I’m convinced the stoic North American love affair with practicality is actually a threesome: you+lack+practical.
Making practical a requirement for every action, every purchase means that you don’t believe there’s enough, that there will be enough, that you deserve more than enough…
…and so you downgrade your desires to what’s obvious, unobjectionable. To what’s practical.
But practical is not the same as actionable. Scrap practical and fold actionable – is this actionable? – into your decision-making process. Honour your desires. Your desires, not anyone else’s. Wear the shoes you want, wherever you want (the airport! Trinidad!), live wherever you want (the airport! Trinidad! or stay in the house you’ve lived in for twenty-five years that you love because you don’t have to be location-independent to be happy, nor do you have to quit your job just because everyone in the blogosphere is doing it), dowhatchalike and look superfine while you’re doing it (please).
You’ll be the happiest you’ve ever been.
Just like my dad. Inside – in the foyer – his beautiful, unusual home is a four-foot deep, fully-stocked koi* pond. Practical, my foot.
* Koi are the spokesmodels of fish. They’re to be admired, not eaten. (Actually that’s a good rule for all people, not just spokesmodels.)
** No father-daughter relationships were strained in the making of this blog post.
*** This is the pond outside the house. It’s way more practical. It only has goldfish. This one is urgently whispering “they put a net over the pond…you gotta bust me outta here.”