Spring has finally settled into the Rocky Mountain foothills, though you couldn’t prove it by the weather; it’s snowing as I write, and we’re again forecast for freezing temperatures. The seasonal bellwether I trust is across the street, where dozens of garden gnomes have emerged from the winter darkness of my neighbor’s garage to congregate in sociable cliques. They are everywhere: in her yard, on her deck, and even on gnome swings hanging from her clothesline.
There are big gnomes, small gnomes, boy and girl gnomes, three-monkey gnomes, a Denver Broncos gnome and a wizard gnome with a solar-powered crystal ball that glows through the night. There’s even a toddler-sized, coyly grinning gnome bending over and dropping his drawers. (This last one is particularly perplexing; perhaps an enlightened reader can explain to me how a gross, fleeting human behavior becomes cute when immortalized in molded resin.)
My neighbor is a wonderful woman: industrious, responsible, thoughtful and otherwise possessed of reasonable taste. But she is 76, and her penchant for collecting kitsch is getting worse with age. Not a problem in itself, but here’s the thing: I think it could be happening to me, too.
It started innocently enough. I was shopping for a new bird feeder, my old feeder having been beaten, battered and finally stomped to death by bears in two different states. I had in mind a well-crafted, high-quality number that shared the pleasing aesthetics of its predecessor: natural cedar or redwood, and — if painted at all — painted tastefully, in earth tones.
It all happened so fast. I was in a big-box store not known for good taste, so I wasn’t surprised that I saw nothing that met my expectations. I paused for just a few seconds in front of this cheap-looking red plastic feeder — apparently, long enough for a few million brain cells to nod off — and the next thing I knew, it was in my shopping cart. In that short time, I had deluded myself into thinking I was being ironic. That, I thought, is so bad it’s good.
I mean, look at the barn doors!
But the birds did not come. I think it may have scared them, or at least seriously confused their sense of proportion. Birds know barns, and in the bird-known universe, barns are not tiny, nor plastic. My little barn facsimile may have uncomfortably brought to mind The Giant Claw, a 1957 sci-fi film in which a humongous bird terrorizes the world.
I value function over form, so after a few days of frightening my feathered friends, I returned the little red barn. But I was sad about it, and the experience left me wondering whether an affection for kitsch is yet another indignity of growing older, a process that slowly, almost incrementally, makes us more and more like children.
Bad taste is endemic in childhood, because, well: little kids haven’t yet developed standards. Many of us also liked to collect things when we were young; we were largely powerless in the adult world, but we were gods in the world of our collections, ordering them as we pleased.
As we mature, though, we become masters of our lives and, hopefully, acquire taste. And we learn that an affection for kitsch and a tendency to collect, while not the same impulse, are close enough to be first cousins. Which means they should never get together, because the result of such unions is inevitably stupid and homely.
Still, I miss my little red barn feeder. And, though it’s scary to admit, a part of me is celebrating the seasonal re-emergence of my neighbor’s garden gnomes. I mean, they’re so bad they’re good …