Part 1 of Our Bathroom Light-Hunting Safari
Ken and I realized yesterday that for weeks we’ve been in the grip of what a friend of mine from graduate school calls the Serengeti Effect. The Serengeti Effect originally described human behavior in relation to the refrigerator in a graduate housing apartment, but the following scenario may sound familiar even if you don’t write J.D. or Ph.D. after your name.
A typical weekday evening of my pre-doctoral life followed a predictable pattern. I returned from seminar and teaching, ravenous after six or eight hours of continuous intellectual stimulation — or worse, six or eight hours of masking paralyzed boredom with an expression signifying not just comprehension, but passionate engagement. My refrigerator was a reliably barren landscape of forgotten condiments where a single, near-empty carton of yogurt might stand like an obelisk in the back of the top shelf. Each night I scanned the appliance horizon, sighed and went upstairs to pee and bring down my translation assignment.
After 10 minutes or so, feeling refreshed and optimistic, I checked the refrigerator again. Still nothing but miso paste, chulula sauce and some sort of unopened chutney that looked good at Trader Joe’s. I felt that if I were at all domestic, I could somehow bind these into nutritious loaf.
Instead I settled down with Martin Luther and my Langenscheidt and 501 German Verbs (none of which Martin Luther apparently employed, damn him) and started diagramming early modern German sentences. Forty-five minutes later, I thought, “Wow, I’m really hungry,” and drifted over to gaze into the same barren, refrigerated landscape.
This is the Serengeti Effect: The conviction that if you keep checking, food will eventually appear. It may be purely instinctive behavior, part of our common hunter-gatherer heritage, or I may have learned it from years of having my parents refresh the contents of their refrigerator with no effort on my part.
Whether learned or innate, that’s what Ken and I were doing Saturday morning when we looked for bathroom lighting fixtures yet again at a local big-box retailer. As usual, we found hundreds of variations on two unattractive models. The first involves a row of three to six largish, frosted bulbs. I find these inoffensive, and they have the virtue of providing relatively bright, impartial light over the bathroom mirror which allows me to make sure my hair isn’t sticking up funny before I leave the house.
The second design sports a bouquet of neck-and-shade arrangements. I despise these chiefly because they glory in the sort of mass-produced ornate detail that is intended to seem tasteful, but that actually illustrates the mutant design that flourishes near the unfortunate intersection of class aspirations and proletariat bank balances. These fixtures also tend not to fulfill their purpose. Under their light I can judge my hair, but I may also waste valuable minutes thinking, “What the hell is that? Is that my nose? Can I remove that with a darning needle and a match, or do I need to hire someone?”
We found this particular plain barren partly because Ken’s criteria for bathroom lighting differ significantly from mine. He insists that the base must be small enough not to interfere with a balanced arrangement of moldings. His main objection transcends the practical, however. The bare-bulb arrangements that I can tolerate depress him because they reflect a soul-destroying rejection of rational ornament. For him, failed simplicity is even more ugly and pretentious than poorly chosen ornament.
So for a few months now, every time we’ve visited the nearest big-box home improvement stores, we’ve engaged in an unconscious struggle. I would gravitate towards the bare-bulb arrangements, and he would shudder. He would point out a cerebrus-like cluster with an acceptably small base, and I would wince. Neither of us could articulate our objections clearly. Ken would insist that none of the bare-bulb fixtures had a small enough base. I unhesitatingly denounced the clusters as ugly, but couldn’t explain my worry that they would trigger worry about my appearance. We always left empty-handed.
Yesterday morning we had a breakthrough because we stood together in the half-bath and, for the first time, defined our requirements clearly. He pointed out the space constraints, and I explained how I actually use the mirror. (He doesn’t, so he hadn’t realized that it had a use beyond pleasingly doubling the flowers on the sink.)
From there, we moved to talking about the semiotics of light fixtures and realized that we assign exactly opposite meanings to the two common configurations. That is, he finds the arrangement I can tolerate pretentious and bleak, and I feel the same way about his. These diverging judgements reflect accidents of upbringing or education, and can’t be settled through argument. It is possible for one partner to shame the other into submission by dropping a strategic reference to Andrea Palladio or Mies van der Rohe. An intellectual argument can’t relieve objections based in taste, though — form may duly follow function, but the losing partner will still entertain mild distaste for the compromise fixture.
Having clarified our positions, we tried the big box one last time. Still nothing. Acres of bare bulbs and sad, goosenecked things one of us judged minimally acceptable and the other entirely despised. We could think of only one way to break the spell of the Serengeti: to find a fixture that executed one idea or the other in a more pure form. For that, we would have to leave the Big Box entirely.