22 January 2006

Sunset Living

We subscribe to the Denver Post (another story, I'm seriously considering switching over to the Rocky). When you renew they give you a free one year subscription to a magazine. Last year my dear wife chose the magazine and chose "Cooking Light" which neither she nor I ever opened (spend the $18 that they charge at Amazon for a year's subscription on a few lattes instead).

This year, I chose the magazine and picked Sunset which purports to be about "Life in the West." We both skim it from time to time now, and have used more recipies than we ever did out of Cooking Light. Partly, this is because the magazine actually has stories relevant to us, like reviews of new businesses on East Colfax Avenue and a discussion of the Stapleton neighborhood. The glossy pictures, recipies and long photo caption style articles make for easy reading as well. But, I'm not really writing to give you magazine reviews. What makes Sunset an interesting read is the cultural project it represents.

Unlike many other lifestyle and fashion magazines ("InStyle" comes to mind), it isn't simply reporting on fashion and design trends (it hardly even mentions celebrities), or even really reporting at all. Instead, it is devoted to creating and nuturing an aethetic and culture that can serve as an alternative to the American mainstream culture, which is rooted in the Northern Pacific Coast (basically everything North of Los Angeles) and extends into the rest of California, the Rocky Mountain states and Southwest (and anywhere else California refugees wander).

Virtually every recipe is low fat, many are Asian influenced, and most are stronger on presentation and herbs, than quantity and nostalgia. Sunset has long been at the forefront of xeriscaping, rock gardens and a wilder lawn and garden aethetic than your typical English formal garden. It promotes more open floor plans, stark lines, Earth tones, and natural woods. It abhors clutter. The characters in its never ending soap opera drink fine local wines, grow herbs in window boxes, regularly patronize Starbucks, and dream of hot tubbing in Taos between art gallery expeditions. It is a world where everyone knows some rudimentary Spanish and Japanese phrases.

While both my wife and I come from the East, she grew up in Buffalo, and I grew up in Oxford, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati, all of this is relevant to me because my wife, while she doesn't actually read this magazine very often, has somehow internalized the culture that it exemplifies. It influences what we eat, how we decorate and what constitutes "glorious living".

I guess I've just been living under a rock. While I'm dimly aware of this alternative Sunset culture, and maybe even have some sense of what it constitutes, I haven't internalized it, or even come to terms with it. I'm not necessary opposed to the ideas it offers. Better this than the hard core truly stark Scandanvian style that is, in theory, my cultural legacy, or the truly Southern style of Atlanta where I spent my early years. I'd rather go with mission style furniture than either the hard avant garde lines of Sweden or the frilly covered wicker of the South just about any day, but I'm not at peace with it either.

This morning my wife's discovery that a little pile of spilled grits, from an incident a few days ago that I had mostly cleaned up, remained in our cereal cabinet (masculine inattention to details like that are completely cross-cultural), incurred the expected wrath, but went on to a little tirade on how could I possibly want to eat that stuff. But, the truth is that I don't have a problem with an occassional breakfast featuring grits and biscuts with red eye gravy. Or, white french bread, which I occassionally pick up to add variety to the usual whole grain order on our grocery list, or pancakes served with maple syrup instead of all natural applesauce. Likewise, I still have trouble seeing the aethetic charm of a desert. I'd rather spend a decadent holiday on a warm beach, or a Washington D.C. museum. And, I still can't figure out why, after being married for eleven years, my wife is still shocked when she tosses a Spanish phrase in my direction and I have absolutely no idea what she is talking about. It isn't that Spanish is a bad thing, our children have already started learning it and I approve. But, I grew up in Ohio where never a Spanish word was spoken, and I barely scraped through intermediate French in college, on a pass-fail basis, with the help of a professor who took mercy on me because I showed up five days a week at nine o'clock to class, never shirked the excruciating experience of being called on to try and say something, and always turned in my homework fully completed only to have almost every answer adorned with red pen.

I may not be a part of Sunset Living, but it does impact my life, and it is facinating to see a whole culture arise through the deliberate focused efforts of a handful of people, out of whole cloth, more or less, and become a living and breathing thing that will, no doubt, be even more influential in the decades to come.

No comments: