I am having a hard time sleeping. Tired of tossing and turning on my narrow share of bed, 1 leave my companion to her dreams, take my pillow and a blanket, go into the living room, and spread out on the rug. I do fall asleep, but sometime a little after dawn I wake up again and lie there drowsily, the furniture lumbering above me in the half light. From down beneath they seem less like artifacts than like a herd of domestic animals, some breed of fabulous mooncalf, asleep in their strange corral.
Right beside me stands a chair. I look up into its pathetic underbelly and think, what a strange simulacrum of a beast. Its body is grotesquely inverted to mirror ours. Children may sit in laps, but adults, except when amorous, do not. We don’t sit on a chair’s lap but on its seat; nor do we lean against its chest but against its back. If chairs had faces, those, too, would be turned away, eyes to the wall.
Think of a bear or tiger skin rug, with head attached. These things are never made to lie belly up, legs spread out as submissive as a cub’s, face staring back at us in utter bafflement at this humiliating turn of events. No, apparently even for great white hunters, perpetual abject surrender gets on the nerves. So, the beast gets flipped over and, allowed to remain oblivious to its fate, keeps something of its ferocious dignity.
Of course, a chair has no former fierceness to temper its current humbled state. To the extent that chairs take after any animal, they most resemble dogs. Dogs, as such, don’t exist in nature, nor, unlike, say, horses, do they do well when returned there.
Dogs have been formed by human desire. They come in many shapes and sizes, not one of them planned or even wanted by the dogs themselves. Dogs, like chairs, wish only to please.
Also, as dogs can be classified as either work dog or pet, chairs can be similarly divided into the hard and the soft. The hard chair in its ideal form is not so much uncomfortable as energizing. We sit in one to do something; eat a meal, watch a movie, write a letter, ride a subway or a bus.
Hard chairs are socializing instruments, encouraging movement and so facilitating talk. The softer the chair, the more effort it takes to drag our attention, as our bodies, out of it. This is why living room furniture often looks softer than it really is. It welcomes the guest but is equally ready to propel him on his way. The truly comfy chairs are hidden in the den.
These chairs almost always have particular owners, their arrangement and degree of comfort displaying the household’s hierarchy. If there is only one such chair, it is usually a grossly pampering entity generally known as “Father’s chair.” Until recently, this was, like the popular image of the eunuch, almost obscenely soft and plump, an enormous behind perched on four tiny legs.
Today, although they bear names like “La-Z-Boy,” these chairs have moved with the times. Their Naugahyde skin is stretched tightly over a muscular frame, which is ready to offer a vigorous massage on demand. Still, they continue to cosset with the same practiced abasement of the family dog. Has if, after all, ever fetched anyone’s slippers or paper other than his “master’s”?
It’s worth remembering that sitting down has always been a privilege and a sign of caste. Highborn soldiers served in cavalry units or at least commanded their infantry platoons from horseback. Factory workers stand in front of machines, bank tellers in front of counters, grocery store clerks in front of cash registers — while their supervisors sit at desks.
For centuries, in accounting houses, all but the head clerk wrote and figured standing up at chest-high desks; more recently they were allowed that least comfortable of seats, the stool. The more comfortable
the master’s chair at home, the more socially traumatic the workplace.
If the easy chair is the antithesis of the work chair, the rocking chair is a subversive attempt to turn the one into the other. The rocker did not, as one might think, evolve from the rocking or hobbyhorse, which is not a chair at all, but a toy. Instead, it grew out of the habit of which most of us were broken in childhood — leaning back on the rear legs of our chair.
Why is this such a pleasure? When you tilt a chair back to a certain point, the weight of your torso need no longer be supported by the muscles of the back. The stomach stops sagging forward, which is especially pleasant for those who have just eaten large meals. The body feels weightless, in repose.
However, at just this point, the chair teeters at the verge of falling backwards and requires 'a certain amount of focused attention to keep from doing so. Those who once smoked cigarettes (or still do) will recognize this combination — the relaxed body, the alert and stimulated mind — as replicating the gift of nicotine, the most social of narcotics.
As with smoking, chair teetering allows an almost inconspicuous flickering of attention from the conversation or work at hand to, depending on your perspective, the maintenance of comfort or avoidance of disaster.
This movement of consciousness, a soothing blend of advance and retreat, can transform socialization into something almost pleasant for the shy and relaxation into something almost bearable for the hyperactive. It is this same oscillation that the rocker makes socially acceptable — at the cost, some would say, of housebreaking it.
Rocking chairs, after all, belong on the front porch or before the fireplace, set out in companionable pairs. Those who teeter are more likely to practice that sport outside a gas station or at a poker party, places where rockers would be seen, at best, as affectations.
Teetering encourages a mischievous alliance between the balancer and the chair — akin to slipping the dog scraps of food under the table. Needless to say, feeding the dog table scraps is considered bad for the dog, just as teetering is considered bad for the chair...as indeed they both may be. However, if chairs could feel, they would, like dogs, delight in such corruption, being for once fellow conspirator instead of slave.
Since 1980, John Thorne has produced Simple Cooking, a food letter, and is the author of Simple Cooking (1987) and Outlaw Cook (1992).