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Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House

Eric Hodgins’ novel Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House came to life on the big screen, with hilarious performances by Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as New York apartment dwellers Jim and Muriel Blandings.

In their crowded New York flat, shared with two daughters and a maid, the daily convergence of adults and children at the single bath room encourages them to think about relocation. Set in the post-war 50s, Jim Blandings chooses suburban flight and the ranks of commuters over urban homesteading. Exploring rural Connecticut, the comedy of errors involves real estate agents, contractors, well drillers, and their hapless but thoroughly professional architect Bill. The wreck of an “historic house” they acquire makes “Money Pit” seem like a romp in the park. When it essentially collapses, they set about the design and construction of a new house that could have been in “Pleasantville”.

Jim Blandings is an advertising executive and poorly versed in the building arts. Yet, as the lord of his soon-to-be manor, Jim feels compelled to involve himself in all aspects of the project. I’ve always thought that this is one of two films that all architecture majors should see (the other is “Witness”) because it says so very much about the inability of most Americans to understand what design and construction are about.

In one scene with architect Bill strategically not on the premises, a carpenter inquires about information missing from the plans. “These,” he intones in a Brooklyn accent, “don’t say nothin’ ’bout no rabbetted lallies. You want ’em rabbetted or not?” As cost overruns had already become an issue, it seems thrifty for Jim to say “no,” which he does with karmic consequence. But my favorite line is delivered by Muriel Blandings, who notes much earlier in the film “There are those who observe and those who participate”, apropos of what I cannot recall.

At one point I thought Muriel had spoken my epitaph.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Bearing Witness

“There comes a time in your life, when you walk away from all the drama and people who create it. You surround yourself with people who make you laugh. Forget the bad, and focus on the good. Love the people who treat you right, pray for the ones who don’t. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Falling down is a part of life, getting back up is living.”José N. Harris, Mi Vida

I haven’t read José Harris’s book, but this quote peppers my FaceBook feed several times a month, where I’ve often been inclined to click “Like.” And then, for some reason I hesitate and don’t. What is it about this upbeat, life-affirming advisory that nags me each time it appears?

Perhaps it’s the very essence of FaceBook itself and other social media, where we’re enabled to associate with like-minded folks who think and act and vote like we do. Oh, I do enjoy the knowledge that there are people out there who make me laugh and treat me right. It’s also temporarily comforting to forget the bad, but also sanctimonious to pray for those outside my comfort zone; who treat me poorly, if at all; the “others” who have not been labeled “friend.” I do not welcome drama, and I certainly hope not to have contributed more than my share to the polarized political discourse of our time. But I resist withdrawing my bucket and shovel from the sandbox of life to play in a comfortable corner with those of like and likeable mind.

Life is too short to think that my happiness is all that matters, which reminds me of our late friend James Edward Tierney, whose passing eighteen months ago left a gaping hole.

Mabeltainter

With Tea Party single-mindedness, Jim Tierney bore witness to a belief in theater as the salvation of the world. I auditioned once—during my high school years, which I try not to think about—for a Tierney production of “A Thurber Carnival” at the community theater he founded. Whatever I read for him evaporated long ago from my recollection, but I will always treasure the skill with which he drew out the best I had to offer and how gently I was thanked for my effort, with the clear understanding that my future might be in words, but decidedly not those delivered upon the stage.

Several years later, after I had gone to Chicago and joined the dubious profession of journalism through its side door, Jim and I had occasion to talk about a certain actress of local renown. I recall the incision of his observation: “Oh, she’s not acting. Narcissists know only one way to behave.” Jim made enemies—some wouldn’t set foot in the theater while he lived; their loss—but he also made actorsHe made participants of those who had merely observed.

Marine boot camp at Paris Island was child’s play compared to a Tierney production. His casting was odd, eccentric, even exotic; often passing over superficially better actors for a less experienced choice. He risked the untested and tried the untrod. He tamed the unruly and released the inner beast of the mild-mannered and milquetoast among us. [I, presumably, had no inner beast, which is good to know but hard to admit.] Granted, Jim Tierney made both friends and enemies along the way, and on this point he is like the vast majority of his fellow creatures. But he also bore witness to a standard that inspired us all and raised the bar for the community’s cultural life. 

So, I will humbly disagree with author José N. Harris and welcome life’s drama; I will engage both the good and the bad and pray for the perspicacity to see the difference between them.

Life is too short to seek nothing but happiness.


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