When was the last time you went to a barn raising? How about a threshing party? Or even a quilting circle? Coming together for shared work is an idyllic vision of our agrarian past, as alien to contemporary life as a horse drawn plow.
Despite being a total city boy, I can draw examples from my past where people came together for both society and purpose. Growing up, my mother went to a neighbor’s house once a week to ‘pattern’ a young girl. Karen was born with a muscular / neurological disorder treated by a quartet of housewife’s literally moving her arms and legs in sync until, eventfully, Karen learned to walk. After purchasing our first house in Oklahoma City, this fledging architect teamed up with his high school buddy David; we alternated weekends between his 60’s ranch and our 30’s bungalow until we transformed both places.
These days, Karen’s patterning would be coordinated by professional physical therapists, and I hire contractors for my home improvements.
Over the last two centuries, as we moved from farm to city, became more affluent, more specialized, and more litigious, our work lives became segregated from our social lives. After hours, we seek diversion and relaxation rather than shared efforts. Friends are people we hang out with, not people we depend upon in any meaningful way.
I’m pretty good at a lot of things, but I’m lousy at hanging out. I just don’t get it. My body always wants to move, my mind always wants to explore. I’m social enough; I enjoy other people in modest doses. But I prefer focused interactions: a bridge foursome; a thought provoking play; a book discussion. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to hang out, with purpose.
Whenever I hear anyone is moving, I always volunteer. Packing boxes, loading furniture, unloading it, unpacking stuff: mindless, physical work best done by a small group. I claim that moving others demonstrates gratitude for the personal blessing of a quarter century at the same address. But in truth, I’d rather do useful stuff with people than sit next to them in a dark movie theater.
Unfortunately, as my friends have gotten older—and richer—they hire movers. This has prompted me to augment my offerings. These days I suggest helping friends hang pictures in their new place. Given my design skills and engineering accuracy, I’m pretty good at it.
Among my cohort, moving means downsizing. This translates to years of accumulated art on fewer walls. In response, I’ve developed a signature approach to hanging pictures. Instead of centering a print or a painting on a wall, we aggregate related pieces into collage.
I’ve hung art in apartments all over Boston. Last week I expanded my territory; I hung pictures with a friend who just moved to Manhattan. This was, perhaps, my first trip ever to The Big Apple without seeing to a show or frequenting a club. Still, Dan and I enjoyed arranging, measuring, marking, and hanging. We chatted as we worked. He treated me to a sumptuous meal, more than adequate payment. When we were finished, we shared the satisfaction of making his apartment his home.
Hanging pictures may not be as elemental as building a barn or bringing in the harvest. But it provides deeper satisfaction than just hanging out.