Happiness Is…


People buy this shit before they’ve ever spent anytime in the backyard.  It’s not like they’re out there allOutdoor_living
weekend, playing frisbee and chasing butterflies and pulling weeds, and after a while they think, "Man, it would be nice to have a place to sit down."  Or, as one of our commenters said, you’ve been having your annual BLT cookout for years and finally you think, "Wow, I wish we had a way to keep the beer cold out here."  No, these are people who think they’ll buy all the stuff first, and then it will suddenly be more fun to go outside and look up at the stars than to stay inside and catch up on Lost.

But it doesn’t work that way.  How do I know? The WSJ article also quotes this study
on the behavior of 24 families in Los Angeles vis a vis their use of
their backyards.  Read the whole thing for yourself if you need
something to get you good and riled up on a Monday morning; I will
simply quote this:

Although the
back yard is a purported center of family leisure, enjoyment, and
privacy, the tracking data from Families 1 to 24 reveal limited uses of
back-of-home spaces by family members, despite the fact that every
sample included many weekend daylight hours and some afternoon and
evening daylight hours, and the weather was generally mild and pleasant
enough to be outside on most days. The most salient trend in the data
is that 13 of the 24 families did not spend any leisure time (neither kids nor parents) in their back yards during the four days per family available for review (Table 1). In quite a few of these cases, no family member so much as stepped into the back yard.

That’s nice.  And how about that front lawn–’cause you’ve got to have
some grass, right, for the kids and the dogs? Not so much.

Among the 24
families, activities in front yards were typically confined to arriving
and departing, unloading groceries, and taking out trash. No leisure
activities occurred among 20 of the families beyond fleeting greetings
to neighbors or brief instances (≤30 min, often intermittent) of
children playing with a bike or ball in the front …A few fathers briefly watered
plants or smoked.

Yeah, I can just see that dad, sneaking out for a cigarette, a hose in his hand to make it look like he’s doing something while Mom puts the kids to bed. It’s sad, it’s weird, and I don’t know how to fix it.  But what I do know is this:  "Outdoor living" is not a trend for the garden industry to jump on.  It’ s just another way in which we’re trying to spend ourselves out of the mess we’re in. 

Because you don’t need to buy an outdoor lifestyle.  If you want to go outside, just go.  You have my permission.  If you like it, stay out there longer. Free of charge. 

And if you don’t like it, I can save you a lot of trouble and assure you that no amount of patio furniture is going to turn you into That Happy, Self-Actualized Guy In His Backyard.  Give it up, man.  He doesn’t exist.

Well, he does, but he’s just an out-of-work actor, paid by the hour, hoping he’ll make enough money today to finally buy that outdoor propane heater his wife’s been wanting.  It’s all an illusion, folks.  Kind of like…



  1. You are right. No patio furniture is going to make folks cope with or enjoy the outdoors. It has to be done with the TV. Put the TV outside under a roofed, open air enclosure and slowly over time people will adjust to the vagaries of temperatures that vary from 72 degrees, the elements and other forms of life that inhabit The Great Outside.

    That is where I am headed now. There are strange new birds here. I have been buzzed by more hummingbirds in the last half day than in my entire life.

  2. We did not get the same memo that these people did:

    That the outdoors is expensive static entertainment, a tableau vivant, pastoral scenery, captialistic and consumer-driven, or- merely a romantic reference to a simpler, bucolic time. And it exists for you.

    Perhaps these people failed to notice their parents or grandparents working hard outdoors – or perhaps they think that we postmoderns have evolved past the archaic practices of our elders.

    You are correct that they did not spend any time outdoors to see if they liked it before they tried to craft their vibe. Sad that they even need to take a “test drive”.

    In a related subject: the open overgrown fields, 1920s homes or falling-down barns as settings where modern people like to take their breezy driving vacations. “Faux-agro” is a term used by Sharon Baskind to suggest these rural aesthetics . This is a modern set of values romaticizes the agricultural past – a perceptional trick to transform a deep story of a struggling family landscape of labor into a picturesque landscape of leisure.

    Spending disproportionate time indoors can cause a human to suffer. Joni Mitchell – I’m going to camp out on the land, I’m going to try and get my soul free… we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden. Thanks for the discussion.

  3. I have a very well-to-do friend who just built an ultra-luxurious 30,000 square foot home on Chicago’s North Shore. It is a marvel. Dollars were spent at the rate one would expect. I think there are 12 bathrooms. You get the idea. This house has a fairly massive “outdoor room” with all the stuff mentioned here. The guy is an urbanite freshly moved with young family in tow to the “country” (suburbs). Anyway, we are old buds and he calls me all the time with very basic urbanite-to-suburbs questions: can you stop over and maybe take a look at the sprinkler heads, are they supposed to work like this or are they broken? Have dinner with us while you are here.

    That kind of thing.

    Anyway, he called the other day and said the following:

    “Hey, I know you are into gardening and such and know about different things. I was wondering if there is some kind of chemical or something I could put in my yard to get rid of the rabbits. You know… like hawk’s urine or something. What do you suggest?”

    “Wow, I didn’t realize you had a rabbit problem. Are they eating your garden? What’s going on?”

    “No… they aren’t eating any of the landscape or anything… and there aren’t that many. But I need ’em gone.”

    “Oh… OK… well… we oughta be able to accomplish this. What specific problem are we fighting here.”

    “Well… ” (LONG HESITATION) “…one of the rabbits crapped on my patio. I can’t have that. They need to be gotten rid of.”

    It was at this point that I started laughing and couldn’t stop.

    Without being crude, Rabbit pellets are not all the same thing as, say, a Labrador Retriever’s. And one rabbit did it once. This is the problem?


    I brought him a broom.

    I guess sitting outdoors on vacuumed slate next to a roaring fire in a carved stone fireplace while listening to surround-sound music and watching one’s housekeeper grill is… uh… not an experience for the timid.


  4. Great piece, Amy. The unused but fantastically expensive yard is something I think about, because my mother lives in a fancy-assed New Jersey suburb, where, I have observed, there are very large yards, lots of expensive specimen plants, Gunite pools that I would kill for–and nobody outside, ever. I mean, never! I’m always out walking my dog and I never see another soul.

    It’s cultural. Suburban life is so upholstered, air-conditioned, and hermetically sealed, these people don’t even KNOW how to be outside. Utterly insane and ineffably pathetic at the same time.

  5. This post is great as I wrote a about this very subject last year. Susie Coelho, who bills herself as “one of the few, and probably the most prominent, lifestyle experts in the country, in terms of outdoor living” said, http://thegoldengecko.blogspot.com/2006/08/its-susie-coelho-from-outer-spaces.html “Across the country, Americans have to get used to the way Californians live. It’s not just that we live outside all the time. A lot of times, we will bring things in. If you want to live that stylish life, it takes a little effort. When it rains, we just dash out and take the decorative pillows off so they don’t get drenched. Most are outdoor-rated anyway, but why not keep them nicer? It’s the same as people who put their cars in the garage if it’s raining or snowing.”

    The larger garden center interests are already jumping on the outdoor lifestyle business. In their desire to smooth the ups and downs of the nursery business it seems like the outdoor lifestyle is just the ticket. You don’t have to water this stuff and it doesn’t take a lot of employees to care for. The smaller garden center is better staying out of this whole outdoor furniture business. I wrote about that here. http://thegoldengecko.blogspot.com/2007/06/trying-to-stay-focused.html

    While the term “outdoor room” can help with the design of the landscape for most people the term means just that, another room of the house, a room to be filled with stuff. Giant gas grills, huge cabanas, and plush patio furniture could almost be tolerated but when television started being include in the outdoor room we know the end is near.

  6. All I need is place to sit down and a place to put my drink so I don’t kick it over. We don’t even use the grill much–I can do a much better job on steaks using the stove. We’re much too afraid of our antique wiring system to try to bring any technology outside.

    Having said that, it’s actually essential for those the Northeast to spend as much time outdoors as possible. We need the long daylight hours (with suitable SPF) to battle SAD and for the vitamin D.

    And anecdotally only, I do see way more people spending time outdoors in urban neighborhoods like ours than I do in the suburbs.

  7. So true. And you didn’t even mention mosquitos (which is the one bit of outdoor fauna that does manage to drive me inside).

    My outdoor lifestyle cost about $300. I have a cheap charcoal grill, a nice wooden bench, a couple of dark green plastic chairs, a small side table, and an L.L. Bean rope hammock. If I had to cut back, I’d dump everything except the hammock.

  8. I have two words to contribute to the discussion: Adirondack chairs.
    (Have I ever mentioned that with their nifty wide arms, you don’t even need a side table?)

  9. I’m purty durn sure that I am not an anolamy.
    I would wager that most reputable landscape duhsigners indepthly interview their clients to make sure that their inve$tment is correct for their lifestyle and budget.
    Duh, that is part of our job, to decipher our clients needs against their wishes and budgets then ‘creatively exceed’ their expectations with a finely crafted landscape/ product/ enviromental experience / garden….. etc……

    Sure I have designed and installed a few pricey landscape architectural amenities, but they didn’t go in without the homeowner understanding the implications of owning such accouterments.

    We( designers ) have the responsibily of educating our clients and to a certain point, protecting them against themselves .

    But in the end , after we have been the best advocate that we can be, you often have to give the client what they want despite all the educational feedback and consultation.. .. and that includes the shiny 5000.00 Tru Sear Viking BBQ with the warming drawers and the temperature control wine frig.

    Some people are just their own worse enemies and we landscrape duhsigners are casualities in this social economic war.

  10. I see the same trend with parks — not urban parks which are the only green spaces around, but suburban parks. It’s not often that I see kids playing there any more. Remember when someone would say, “Hey, let’s play ball!” and kids would run for their mitts and bats? Now they run for the Wii or X-box and stare at the screen to “play ball.” Or if they play ball for real, it’s on an organized Little League team, with coaches, uniforms, and overinvolved screaming parents.

    As a nation, we’re losing touch with the outdoors, period. Heck, we don’t even know what “reality” is any more. We can get it on T.V.

    When my son was in Scouts, it was refreshing to be around people who enjoyed the outdoors. Those are the only folks I know who entertain outside. And they don’t need tens of thousands of dollars worth of hardware to do it, either. Some folding chairs, a folding table, a few coolers, and a barbecue, and there ya go.

  11. People spending $50,000-$1,000,000 keep a lot of other people employed, and keep manufacturer’s of this “stuff” in business. It’s their money and their backyard.

    . . . right or wrong . . .

Comments are closed.