Chasing lifestyles in Swanage

Wild Thing and I just got back from a few days of bumping around Swanage, a beach town in Dorset, where we were playing tourist. Or holidaymakers, if you want to get all British about it. I’m not sure why one’s a singular and the other’s a plural. Let’s pretend it’s one of those American/British things instead of a rule I just invented.

But forget the grammar. The important thing is that I came home with a burning question: What’s a lifestyle?

The question landed in my head because two shops there seem to sell lifestyles. One advertises lifestyle clothing, the other homeware (singular) and lifestyle.

Marginally relevant photo: a couple by the beach in Swanage. I don't know if this qualifies as a lifestyle.

Marginally relevant photo: a couple by the beach in Swanage. I don’t know if this qualifies as a lifestyle. Probably not, and I like them for it.

Now homeware demands its own moment of thought before we move on to lifestyle, because they’re related. Really they are. I’m guessing homeware is an upscale version of housewares (plural)—the boring stuff I vaguely remember my mother stopping to look at while I pulled on her arm and whined. (I was a charming kid.)

Now that I’m 203, I stop to look at housewares myself, and they’re more interesting than they were in my mother’s day. It’s amazing how the world’s gotten better, in at least this one not particularly useful way.

But homeware? Holy shit. Homeware isn’t just stuff you shove in a cupboard and take out when you need it. It’s made up of lifestyle items.

What am I talking about? I haven’t a clue, and I’m guessing that whoever paid to get that sign painted, if pushed, wouldn’t be able to tell me either. What it implies, though, is that if I own (and therefore, crucially, have bought) enough of this stuff, it will change my life. Or its style.

Are my life and its style the same thing? The slogan implies it. It also implies that if I change the style—the thin outer shell—my life will also change.

From the context, I can guess that if a cereal bowl is a lifestyle item, it costs more than if it were just, you know, a cereal bowl. How much more? Ten percent? Fifty percent? More than that? How much is a lifestyle change worth?

The higher price is essential. If you could get your hands on lifestyle cereal bowls for the cost of ordinary ones, would you believe in their power to change your life? Doesn’t all this depend on the lifestyle object being out of other people’s reach, so that owning it puts you in a special category?

Since we’d been talking about all this, Wild Thing stopped outside the lifestyle clothing store’s window and called my attention to a yellow, semi-see-through blouse. It wasn’t a fully transparent kind of see-through, but if you looked closely enough it you could see the stitching on the seams.

“If I wore that, it would change my lifestyle,” she said.

You need to understand that Wild Thing’s as likely to wear a see-through blouse as she is to wear a suit of armor, but if she did, it would still be Wild Thing in there, and wildly out of place.

None of which exactly addresses the question, which has now expanded from What’s a lifestyle? to include Whatever it is, can you sell it?

Let’s start with the first, What’s a lifestyle?

Years ago, when having a partner of the same sex shocked more people than it does today, someone told me she didn’t approve of my lifestyle. I can’t remember who she was, where we were, or how that came up, but I do remember thinking (and, unfortunately, not being fast enough to say), It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a life.

That wouldn’t have gotten into why she thought I should care what she approved of in my life or my style. We’ll set that aside, though, because our topic today is lifestyle, not silly, self-important people from the past who’d been programmed with a phrase or two that let her think she had the world figured out.

In the context of same-sex relationships, lifestyle was a word tossed around by people who—how am I going to characterize them? People who spent a lot more time than was good for them thinking about what other people did (or might do, since I doubt I could live up to their imaginings) in bed. And their choice of the word made my life sound like something I’d chosen from a delicatessen counter. I’ll have a slice of the blue cheese, please, some Kalamata olives, and, gee, what else do I want today? Maybe a partner of the same sex who the world at large disapproves of? Oh, fun.

So I’ve never been impressed with the word’s accuracy. And now (touching briefly on our second question) I find out lifestyles are for sale. In stores that sell cereal bowls and less-than-opaque blouses.

How times have changed.

It’s worth asking if the objects we own and use change us. They do. If you’ve never spent a day in high heels, try it and you’ll understand. Or an hour. Or, hell, walk from one end of the house to the other and you’ll catch a glimpse of how this works. Now apply that to the more serious changes like fire, or electricity, or central heating. Or clean water and sewage pipes.

Trust me to dive right into the most romantic objects, right?

If our lives demand that we live in and use objects that don’t suit us, we’ll be out of place in our own lives. All I have to do is imagine myself in a corset to know that objects matter. Getting rid of the wrong ones matters. Getting enough of the right ones matters. Having more stuff, though? Or more expensive stuff? What matters there is knowing that it doesn’t, in any deep way, matter. This is about knowing the difference between need and want, and between our own genuine wants and the ones foisted on us by the good folk selling us lifestyles.

I’m not immune to the lure of a beautiful object. Heels aren’t my thing—give me running shoes any day—but I often find myself looking through our mismatched mugs for the one I most want to drink out of. It’s silly—they all hold liquid—but I do it and take some small pleasure from it. It’s not a lifestyle, though, it’s a mug. To be a lifestyle, I suspect, you have to back away from your stuff and your choices and see your life as a creation, an art form. A kind of make-up applied to the face of your existence. Which, to me, seems to create something brittle.

Some bloggers call themselves lifestyle bloggers, meaning (I think) that they write about their own lives. Or maybe they write about the make-up on the face of their lives. Maybe for some of them all it means that they don’t fit any of the other prefabricated niches the blogosphere offers so they pour themselves into this one, whether or not they’d use the word if they weren’t pushed to it.

I’ve struggled with the niche issue myself. I don’t seem to fit any of them and haven’t claimed one. Notes isn’t (as far as I can figure out) an expat blog, isn’t a humor blog, and isn’t, may all the gods anyone ever believed in preserve us, a lifestyle blog. Because I’m not going to blog about something I suspect of being blue smoke and mirrors.

If a lifestyle can be marketed and then constructed out of things we buy, it’s no more than a veneer, a shell, an image we present first to ourselves and then to the world to say, Look how beautifully I’m living. Aren’t I just happy?

And behind that? That’s where the person lives, as happy or unhappy, as wise or foolish, as before the lifestyle goods arrived.