On keeping an open mind

We have few differences, my wife and I. To be sure, she pronounces the i in neither and leans toward orange instead of grapefruit juice. But we agree on most things--except a certain matter of domestic architecture. For she loves modern houses and I love doors. And between the two, it seems, there is a great gulf fixed.

Contemporary architects, I have noticed, don't much care for doors. They only seem to use them where nothing else will do--at entrances, for example, or on bathrooms. So the modern house, like the American plains in the days of the bison, is a thing of great undivided spaces. The open reaches sweep from kitchen into dining area, roll on unbroken into the living room, and cascade over a step or two into the family room. Between kitchen and dining area, for example, lies a distinction as blurred as that between late winter and early spring. Standing in the midst of either, one knows it to be different from the other; but one is never just sure where the boundary is.

So at the risk of sounding positively Cenozoic in my fondness for times past, let me argue the case for doors. First, I suppose, I must explain that I grew up in a house full of them. Our kitchen alone had nine--all solidly built paneled affairs with sturdy porcelain knobs. My respect for them dates from the day our cleaning lady washed the kitchen floor at snack time and then departed. Undaunted, I mounted the hall door, feet on the knobs and hands grasping the top , and swung myself into the kitchen to the counter. Then I stepped across the stove, swung across on the broom closet door to the pantry, and availed myself of several fig newtons--with not a single toe-print on her still-wet floor. The old doors, fastened like Excalibur into the rock of their spruce frames, never so much as sighed.

It was in that same kitchen that we performed a ritual twice a year. Every fall, as the north wind whistled around the back porch, we put up the black wooden storm door. And each spring the screen door reappeared. It generally had some repairs pending: for our dog, a hybrid hound whose exuberance exceeded his patience, fancied it a mere mirage. On summer days, seized by the sound of a foreign cat outside, he would boil out from under the table and rip through the doorway--whereupon the screen door would fly back in amazement with a great twanging of its spring, to slam shut again well behind his tail. Nor was his return trip any challenge. The wooden cross-pieces were on the outside of the door; he would grab the one below the handle in his teeth, pull open the door until he could stick in a paw, and then flip back the door enough to wriggle through. He may have been silly but he wasn't stupid.

His partner at the water dish was a cat many years his senior, glossy and black with gold markings, like an old piano. By a kind of regal self-assurance and some very sharp claws, she had early squelched his penchant for insurrection. She was, in fact, master of the house, so much so that she called forth what may have been my finest childhood invention.

The problem she and I faced was her restlessness. I kept my bedroom door shut against the hall light and she loved to sleep at the foot of my bed. But just as I was sliding toward sleep, she would decide to go elsewhere. Moreover, she was the one with patience: she would set the timer of her meower every seven seconds and let it go off with devilish regularity until I lumbered to the door. One night amid such fumbling the invention hit me: an electric dooropener. Finding a solenoid from a discarded washing machine, I fastened it to a kind of lever on the inside doorknob, and wired it back to a doorbell button beside my bed. The solenoid would yank down the lever and release the latch, whereupon a rubberband , fastened between door and baseboard, would swing the door slowly open. It worked fine, with only a couple of problems. One was the noise: for the solenoid , made to jerk great greasy washing-machine gears into place, was overqualified for the job. More than once it terrified family members who, tapping like Poe's raven at my chamber door, were greeted with a great blast of buzzing magnets and crashing metal, followed by silence and the slow, mysterious opening of the door. The other problem, of course, was that the operation was irreversible. Having triumphantly let the cat out, I always had to get up to shut the door again.

I guess, in some ways, I've been shutting doors ever since. For I have great respect for them. In old New England houses they had a purpose: they kept the heat, always a scarce commodity, just where it was wanted. Only with the advent of central heating did people begin taking them down and storing them in barns - to be rediscovered by the children of a more fuel-conscious age.

But if doors had a purpose, they also had a fringe benefit. They produced privacy, quietness, the solitude that breeds deep thought. I realize that it cannot quite be proved that the tradition of academic excellence in New England is directly a function of the region's number of doors. In fact, however, few scholars could survive a doorless existence. The ability to close off the intrusive and the distracting--to shut out all the bustle of the senses--is the first prerequisite to deep thought.

Or so I used to think. Recently, however, I have felt a change coming on. Maybe it stems from my job: my desk now sits in the middle of a newsroom, surrounded by phones and conversations. The people I most admire know how to write in the midst of fifty different noises, all of them intriguing. They have taught me a great lesson: that there are ways, if the physical door is lacking, to shut the mental door.

I'm not a master of that discipline. I still find within myself too much of the dog, bolting after every cat that passes on the far side of the screen door of my mind. But I have at least seen the promise--that concentration is a habit of thought and not an accident of place, and that a warm and open sociableness brings as much benefit as a cloistered solitude.

I'm not about to shift my pronunciation of neither. But I'm getting more interested in modern houses.

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