Homes and Castles

Mark O'Brien
Jun 11, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Ben_Kerckx, courtesy of

As the child of Depression-Era parents, I may have an undue attachment to things, an errant sense of appreciation, and an over-developed desire for things like beauty, meaning, value (subjective, admittedly), constancy, and permanence. And that may be why, during a design discussion with my wife, Anne, I was rattled to learn of an article published in Business of Home on May 28 of this year entitled, “Is rental furniture the next big thing?” As we continue the apparent commoditization of darn-near everything*, it seems as if our accoutrements may be as transient as we are.

Here’s an excerpt:

We live in a world where if you want something, you can rent it, often at the click of a button: a house, a car, a dress, a movie. So why not furniture? … The target customers … are millennials whose lives are often changing — i.e., someone who doesn’t want to pack, move, and unpack a set of furniture from apartment to apartment.

Just this past Saturday, still reeling from the Business of Home article, I came across an article in The New York Times online. Entitled, “They See It. They Like It. They Want It. They Rent It”, it was even more disorienting and disturbing than its predecessor.

Here’s a sample of its ontological disengagement:

Nothing is guaranteed [said Miki Reynolds, 38, who] rents both her downtown apartment and her co-working space. She regularly swaps out high-end clothing and accessories … pays a monthly fee to a furniture start-up … [and has] a borrowed coffee table and sofa … The point of ownership, Ms. Reynolds said, is not to own at all, but rather “to experience the thing.”

Since none of us gets out of here alive, I intellectually comprehend the pragmatic reality that we own nothing, that we borrow everything, that nothing belongs to us forever in any absolute or perdurable sense. But this seems more like a matter of philosophy — and existential philosophy, at that — rather than simple pragmatism.

Side A

On one side of the philosophical coin, it’s possible my nagging sense of dread or dis-ease about impermanence is paranoia; although, that lack of certainty may very well be proof positive that I am, indeed, a textbook paranoiac. Either way, my chronic disquietude is assuaged not at all when I come across things like an article in Forbes called, “Disappearing And Real-Time Content Is On The Rise.” This is the kind of Orwellian thing that sends me over the edge:

Live videos, disappearing stories, and otherwise in-the-moment content seems [sic] to have finally found its [sic] groove … “post today, gone tomorrow” content.

We used to hear that things posted on the Internet live forever. Now they might not even make it till lunchtime. Forget about constructive. Can this kind of cultural, institutional evanescence be healthy? If everything, including our clothing and our furniture, can be here today, gone tomorrow, what constitutes our treasures? Do we even have them anymore? Can we even recognize them anymore? And what is the value of any experience (Ms. Reynolds’ term) that is by nature and definition fleeting? Are we to reduce existence to a series of check-boxes?

Side B

On the other hand, if you’re willing to take at least a portion of your philosophy from popular music (I am), Don Henley makes a very good point in his song, “Gimme What You Got”:

You spend your whole life
Just pilin’ it up there.
You got stack and stacks and stacks.
Then, Gabriel comes and taps you on the shoulder.
But you don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.

This translates simply into the old saw, “You can’t take it with you.” I get that, too. But shouldn’t you enjoy it — whatever it is — for as long as you can? Can we possibly wring all the enjoyment there is to be had out of things like clothing and furniture in three-month increments? Have we damaged our attention and appreciation spans that catastrophically? Are we so existentially jaundiced that we now (think we) derive value from transience?

Flip the Coin

I know deliberations like this are quite likely generational. And they’re almost definitely cyclical. One man’s treasure is another man’s trash … until the Big Wheel turns. And your home is your castle, even if the rampart is rented … unless it’s not. I don’t know if I’ll ever settle this quandary, certainly not in any non-transient, empirical sense.

The best I can do is get comfortable in my favorite chair, know it’s mine for as long as I live and want it, queue Jimi’s Axis: Bold as Love, and listen to “Castles Made of Sand”:

And so castles made of sand
fall in the sea eventually.

As Jimi famously said at Woodstock, “What the hell, cowboys are the only ones who stay in tune, anyway.”

*Thank you to Anne for sharing this story as a post to her blog.

Mark O'Brien

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Trust yourself. Question everything. Settle for nothing. Conform to as little as possible. Write relentlessly. And never quit.

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