Here’s a thought: we are living in the Age of the Chair -the Sellacene. Okay, I just made the word up from my high school Latin, but even so, it has a certain commanding sibilance, don’t you think? And chairs are things most of us don’t ruminate on very much. Vybarr Cregan-Reid from the University of Kent does, however. He’s even written a book about it: Primate Change, but I only discovered the chair-thing through an article in a BBC Future article: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181108-the-anthropocene-should-be-known-as-the-age-of-the-chair
‘Why’ he asks, ‘are there no chairs in the Bible, or in all 30,000 lines of Homer? Neither are there any in the play Hamlet – written in 1599. But by the middle of the 19th Century, it is a completely different story. In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, suddenly there are 187 mentions of them.’ Why indeed? I suppose in the old days people just sat around their campfires on logs, or dead animals or whatever. It seems hard to believe, though. Vybarr figures that nowadays, each of us has 8-10 of them. Each of us, for goodness sake -you probably can’t move around much in his house.
Anyway, ‘While chairs began to appear with a little more frequency in the early modern period (1500-1800), it seems that they became much more popular during the Industrial Revolution.’ But, I have to say he modulates this outrageous claim by admitting something I suspected all along: ‘Before the 18th Century, a chair was relatively easily come by, but the majority of the population had little use for them. Even today, it is not easy to sit on a hard wooden chair for sustained periods.’ Come on! You get used to stuff, eh? Still, he points out that ‘For centuries before, chairs had persistently been associated with power, wealth and high status.’ And, ‘The idea of chairs as a symbol of status still persists today. The highest attainment in my own profession, academia, is called ‘a chair’. The individual that runs a meeting is called ‘a chair’. The head of a company is also a chairman or woman.’ I have to say that I’d never thought of that…
‘Once the use of chairs was democratised (particularly after the French Revolution in France and the 1832 Great Reform Acts in the UK), this coincided with a slow change in our working patterns… But towards the end of the 19th Century, as the second wave of a technological revolution gathered pace with inventions such as the typewriter, telegraphy and the expanding uses of electricity, the labour market also began to change… Novel reading increased hugely in popularity throughout the 19th Century – and further sedentary leisure activities followed with the arrival of cinema, radio and television. More recently, computer gaming, media streaming and other screen-time activities lead us to sit still in contemplation.’
He goes on to discuss the health issues associated with a largely sedentary life style -which, for a variety of reasons I chose to ignore- and yet I was struck by a delightful metaphor he used: ‘If modern life presents us with a bouquet of sedentary behaviours, then chairs are the stalks.’
I just had to share it with Brien, my go-to person when I have any historical, or philosophical quandaries that need clarification. I hasten to add that he is pragmatic in the extreme, and a man of few, albeit pithy, words. As my regular readers may remember, Brien is by and large a porch person. I do not know if he actually lives there, but in truth I’ve never seen him anywhere else. When he is not watching Sheda, his favourite cedar tree, waving at him in the wind, I usually see him wrapped in his seat on the porch, a can of beer in his hand, watching the world walk past. The yard is a mess, but he feels it scares off burglars; I have long since given up telling him that it also discourages visitors.
I stopped at the broken shards of sidewalk that led up to his steps and waited until he had processed my arrival. It is best not to approach unguided -things are never as they seem in the yard, and he is very protective of the route.
“Keep off the second chunk, eh?” he said when he saw me about to risk the piecemeal fragments. “It tips into a puddle…” Then he shrugged. “Some kind of leaking water pipe goes under it and I’m pretty sure it comes from the house because of the smell.”
I walked carefully around the concrete slab in question, thinking the grass -sorry, weeds– might be safer.
“Now, back onto the sidewalk, eh?” he said, watching my every step. “Saw a dog sitting out there yesterday…”
I’m never sure when he’s kidding, even after all these years, but he seemed pleased when I followed his instructions and arrived on the porch. My reward, as usual, was a can of beer from the bunch he always keeps under his chair.
He waved me to the only other seat and sat back, apparently happy I had made it without injury. But I surprised him by remaining on my feet.
“I fixed the chair, ya know,” he said, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Like the pipe under the sidewalk, you mean?” I said, chuckling and shuffling back and forth on my feet, unused to just standing on the porch.
He stared at me with a little smile sneaking on and off his face while his eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Hemorrhoids?” he asked after watching me for a while.
I blushed and shook my head. “I’ve decided I sit far too much for my own good.”
“Everybody has to sit sometimes,” he said, still watching me.
“And why’s that, Brien?” I asked, although after I said it, I realized how silly it sounded.
“It’s the way we’re designed,” he said, matter-of-factly, but he could tell by my expression that I didn’t believe him. He shrugged as he might with a disbelieving child. “Look, what’s the biggest muscle in the body?” The smile grew a row of teeth.
I had to think about it for a moment. “Uhmm, I’m not sure… The gluteus muscle -the butt?”
He nodded, much like a teacher would in coaching the answer from a slow pupil in the back of the class. “And why is it so big?” His eyes stopped twinkling for a moment, to give me time to think it out -carefully.
“To… I don’t know… So we can walk? I mean keep us upright, and stuff?”
He rolled his eyes briefly. “You stand on your feet, right?” I nodded. “So why aren’t they as big if they have to hold you up?” The smile returned. “Or your legs, for that matter?”
I was speechless.
He shook his head like he was disappointed in me. “How long do you think you could sit on your legs or your feet without getting cramps?”
“But… I mean, they’re not designed to sit on…”
He let the smile on his face spread, reached for another beer under his seat, and pointed at the second chair. Sometimes it’s difficult to argue with Brien.