Not Conforming: The Home and Garden Edition

Ever have one of those days in which you feel that you don’t fit in with your current local culture? I have those days a lot lately, and I need to download a small rant. Feel free to join in, or commiserate, or tell me to suck it up and deal, in the comments. This is a somewhat US-centric rant, however, so perhaps a little background is necessary.

I’ve been a renter most of my adult life, and finally decided to buy a house about five years ago. My house is 1500 sq ft (including the garage), and sits on about a tenth of an acre – plenty of house for me and the dog(s), plenty of yard for trees and a rock garden and raised beds for vegetables and herbs. It was important to me that the house was close to work, that I could maintain the house and yard myself, and that the mortgage was affordable, even with a cut in pay (which is likely to happen, with the proposed furloughs). Having lived in London for three years, and having a number of friends in Europe and Japan, I am well aware that a 1500 sq ft house, plus the yard, is a relatively vast amount of territory for one human being to possess and occupy. My rant is not about being unhappy with this situation, not at all: I’m very happy with the house and neighborhood, and my friends and family who visit occasionally are also happy with the living sitch.


New fruit trees: a Fuyu Persimmon, and a Brown Turkey Fig. Yes, I realize that the lawn looks like crap, but the grass will start growing very soon. Too soon.

No, my rant stems from how I fail to conform with the culture defined by my faculty colleagues, and what I think this might reveal about US culture. First, the majority of my colleagues, whether single or married, childless or with young/grown children, live in houses that are 2.5 to 5 times the size of mine. Scale the yard acreage accordingly, perhaps even by a factor of 10 to 20. I’m not exaggerating. Second, many of my colleagues live much further from the medical center workplace than I do, in rural enclaves, exurbs, or in towns in surrounding counties. Third, most of my colleagues pay other people to clean their houses and maintain their yards. Stands to reason, if you have a huge house, a long commute, and a busy work schedule. I don’t begrudge people these things – I just don’t conform to those standards. I do resent the periodic and unsubtle attempts to convince me to change my ways in a suitably professorial manner. I could, financially speaking, but I don’t want to change my lifestyle.


Lettuce in a raised bed garden. I’ve had enough for several green salads each week throughout the winter.

This chronic, low-level nonconformity has surfaced today, because I began planning for a dinner party. A few of us at work, some faculty and some not, have started a dinner club, very informal, and hosted by a different person each month. In two weeks’ time I’ll be hosting the festivities, and I’ve chosen an African theme, for which I’ll make a lovely spiced chicken dish with fruited bulghur. I might even bake some kale chips with Moroccan spices. I have a nice collection of African music CDs to play as background – Salif Keita, Cesária Évora, Youssou N’dour, and more. Other dinner club members will bring the dessert, appetizers, and side dishes. So what’s the problem?


Kale in a raised bed garden. I’ve grown enough for soups, stir fries, and baked kale chips each week, throughout the fall and winter months.

I’m kind of worried that my amateur “interior decorating”, mismatched hand-me-down and Ikea furniture, and non-palatial unprofessorish home will not be good enough, and that there won’t be enough chairs, and that people will feel cramped and oppressed. I know, it’s silly … especially since I have no intention of changing. If I had a big house and yard, and had to pay people to clean and maintain the property, I would feel guilty and over-privileged. It’s especially silly, since I know I’m a good cook, and that people can have a great time eating and conversing and enjoying good company, even when seated in small, crowded spaces. I’m happy in a house filled with books, art supplies, yarn, and cooking utensils, so why am I obsessing about such ridiculous things? I dunno, maybe I just had to have a little rant, to realize that it’s completely stupid and ridiculous to fret.

To paraphrase a saying from my undergrad days (which, in its original form, is too rude to repeat here), perhaps the best rant is a self-rant.

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16 Responses to Not Conforming: The Home and Garden Edition

  1. cromercrox says:

    Hey, KV, not like you to get intimidated by anyone? Wassup? I’d come. Especially for kale chips and Salif Keita.

    • KristiV says:

      Salif Keita is utterly awesome, and kale chips are surprisingly tasty (sometimes I eat all of them while they’re still warm). I don’t know why I even worry about the trappings of status, ever. The colleagues whom I admire most do excellent science, wear T-shirts and shorts to work, are generous and informal with their entertaining, and don’t give a rat’s butt what anyone thinks of their lifestyles and hobbies. Funnily enough, I never felt intimidated by polo-playing friends and acquaintances, some of whom have horse barns more palatial and fancy than any house I’ll ever occupy … in fact, they occasionally expressed wistful envy of a person with an intellectually interesting career.

      • cromercrox says:

        The kale (and the purple-sprouting broccoli) in my raised bed seem to have overwintered nicely. Soon I’ll be removing the horticultural fleece … and I’ll asking you for kale recipes.

  2. Austin says:

    Do you think you might be worrying about this because you are American, and thus likely to be judged by standards you see Americans applying to themselves, Kristi? For instance, I theorise that an English expat in this same situation in the US might be either: (a) blithely unaware; or (b) rather pleased to be perceived as non-conformist / endearingly eccentric.

    BTW, the food sounds good to me, as per HG.

    PS Our solution to larger extended family gatherings in a house that isn’t big enough is to shift them out into the garden

    • KristiV says:

      I definitely think so, Austin, and I think it’s peculiar to my situation a) in Texas, and b) at a medical school. Regarding a), house prices are quite low here, and you can buy a lot of house and yard for not much money, relative to most of the rest of urban/suburban US. It probably costs the same to fill the house with stuff and to maintain it, and property taxes are about average. Regarding b), I think a lot of PhDs, who would behave normally if they were faculty at a state university or small private university, tend to adopt the material trappings of their MD colleagues in the context of a medical school environment. Certainly I would never have worried about such things in the context of my graduate university, nor did I when I was a postdoc in London.

      I think the food will be excellent – too bad we can’t get all the OT bloggers together for something similar! The weather is likely to be good enough to shift everyone out in the garden. I have a politically-themed darts competition in mind, and that certainly won’t take place inside the house.

  3. cromercrox says:

    I have this hypothesis that the best friends to hang out with are those who have made their own style rather than following the herd. After a hard time at a local junior school, Crox Minima (aged 10) moved school ans fell in with a peer-group whose parents one might characterise as ageing hippies. They are all interesting, intelligent people who do interesting things, make their own furniture, are into gardening and music and cooking and recycling and interesting country rambles and couldn’t really care less for what’s current or fashionable. They do things like spontaneously invite one over for supper. I like people like that.

  4. steffi suhr says:

    I don’t think it’s only an American thing, Kristi (the size of the house and garden may be, but not the principle behind such thinking). In “certain circles”, it can be hard not to conform to the “norm”, which includes living in a smaller place, driving a small car etc. A friend of mine actually gave me some (unasked for) counseling/advice recently: if you think about moving further up the career ladder, you should be aware that you may be expected to drive a bigger car and have to invite people to more or less formal dinner parties.

    I’m proud to be driving my Fiat Panda, and I invite who I like to hang out with. Screw ’em.
    (Wouldn’t mind living in a house with garden instead of an apartment at some point again, though…)

    P.S. Very curious about kale chips now!

    • KristiV says:

      That advice about “how to conform” is almost always unasked for, isn’t it? Also, very much to your point about house vs. apartment – I feel quite fortunate to have a house and a decent-sized yard, and so it seems all the more ridiculous and selfish to expect to need a larger place with a more extensive/fancier yard, just because I have tenure or whatever.

      The kale chips are easy to make. I grow dwarf varieties (Siberian and Russian Red) and bake the leaves whole, but you can start with larger kale leaves, which will need to be de-stemmed and cut or torn into bite-sized pieces. First wash the leaves, and then dry them COMPLETELY. I use a salad spinner first, and then allow them to air-dry. Next, put the kale in a large bowl, and drizzle about a tablespoon (more, if it’s a large batch) of olive oil onto the leaves, and spend a few minutes rubbing the oil onto all surfaces of the leaves. Heat the oven to 350F (175C), and lay the oil-coated kale leaves onto parchment paper or aluminum foil, on a large baking sheet. The kale can overlap somewhat. Bake 8-10 minutes (the small leaves take 8 min), and check to make sure the kale does not turn brown. Mix a teaspoon of salt with a teaspoon of your favorite spice(s), and sprinkle over the kale once it comes out of the oven. I like to use blends (Arizona Dreaming, Southwestern, Greek, etc.) that I get from Penzey’s, but anything you like should work. OK, maybe not cinnamon, but you get the idea. You can store the baked kale in an airtight container, but I’ll bet it won’t last that long. Best right out of the oven anyway.

    • Austin says:

      The Boss often tells me that in Germany the major barriers to her career advancement in medicine (certainly in Bayern) would have been her relatively humble origins (child of farmers and first member of the family to go to the Gymnasium and to University) and her (she says) Tief-Oberbayerisch accent.

  5. I agree with Austin’s analysis. My husband and I spent 4 years at Cornell where we very obviously didn’t conform: we never got either a TV or a car and people didn’t understand we were happy to cycle (in the summer, when there was no snow) or walk to the supermarket to do our shopping. We were sometimes asked if we were communists, in part because we believed in the National Health Service but also I think because we were just odd in the eyes of the locals including other members of the academic community. But we knew we were ‘aliens’ just there in passing, so we didn’t care. If we had been Americans the pressure on us to do the normal thing would have been much more intense.

    • KristiV says:

      I would have thought that the community in Ithaca would be more progressive than elsewhere in the US, and as an American, I’m somewhat embarrassed that you were asked whether you were a communist. That just seems irretrievably small-minded. I have a TV that’s 25+ years old (it belonged to my grandmother), and I keep it in the guest bedroom – visitors often ask me where my TV is, and why I don’t have a flatscreen, prominently displayed in the living/dining room. I’d be bereft without ready access to Top Gear, Dr. Who, and Masterpiece Mystery!, but I don’t think I’d actually die without the TV. Sometimes the students in anatomy lab will discuss various TV programs, and then try to include me in the conversation – usually I have no idea what they’re talking about.

  6. Noncomformity can take many guises. I consider myself a fortunate owner of a slightly too big historic old house, but my wife likes to entertain and it came with a very large lot that as avid gardeners we coveted. And I’m within 20 mins walk of my office. Even still the ‘burbanites with their new houses and expansive monocultures of grass wrinkle their noses at the effort our estate. But rather than golf or tennis and other country clubby type passtimes, we garden. Can’t wait for gasoline to top $5/gallon and then see what people think of their commutes.

    • One of the motifs of North-Eastern US suburbia that I always used to find amusing (especially when I lived in Bethesda as a Sabbatical fellow) was the vast expanses of trimmed-to-the-millimetre weed-free lawn that surrounded people’s houses, but which you never, ever, saw the house occupiers USE for anything.

      The funny thing is that it is a famous stereotype about the British (appearing e.g. in the Asterix books) that they are obsessive about their lawns. But I’ve never seen anything in the UK to compare with the DC ‘burbs.

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Hey, no need to feel badly about not conforming. As they said in “The Life of Brian”, “We’re all individuals!”

    Seriously, our kids used to be embarrassed when we’d speak Hebrew with other people present, or play “non-American” music, or not adhere to “dress codes”, etc. But after getting used to being different, they’re now proud of it and wouldn’t have it any other way!

    Cheers for non-conformism…

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