cover of 2022 spring issue

By DUSTIN COPELAND

The process of choosing a favorite of anything is fraught with contradiction. A “favorite” thing one moment is secondary the next, and even enduring preferences are (however momentarily)  superseded by new obsessions every once in a while. “Favorite” may not even mean what it appears to —I think it is not uncommon for people to call their favorite object something which has some kind of personal meaning or symbolic importance to them, even when that object is not actually their preference in daily life. Someone may call an old cast-iron skillet their favorite pan, for instance, and each morning still reach for their practically-preferred non-stick.  

Favoritism smacks of untruth also because of its appeal to the absolute—“favorite” is a  superlative, assigning an objective “best.” But favoritism is complicated by its individual nature, as a  “favorite” is your absolute best, that which you hold above all else. How are you supposed to decide what you value most? Favorites are relative not only to their set (favorite movie, favorite drink, favorite space) but to their people (My favorite movie and yours, different yet mutually undeniable). And still,  deciding a favorite feels to me like assigning an absolute. This is the dual nature of favoritism, the reason it is so slippery, so untruthful, even as it seeks out something true in the most personal sense.  

It may be possible to determine a “representative favorite” by examining patterns in one’s choices of favorite things. This representative choice would reflect themes that may be revealed in either varying favorites over time or in one’s “shortlist” of favorite items (from which they are unable to choose just one). In terms of spaces, I would call this someone’s “taste,” or the boundaries of their aesthetic and narrative preferences. Narrative, because spaces tell stories by their arrangement as well as their architectural intention. The patterns of human interaction are visible in every detail of a space,  from pencil-marks on the dining-room wall where a child must do homework to the collection of personal ephemera cluttering the surface of a nightstand. Those narratives that make us happy, our preferred genres of space, help narrow down what may be our favorite space. 

There is also impulse—oftentimes we are encouraged, when asked our favorite of a thing, to answer simply by blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. Upon further consideration, that thing may very well hold up as representative of one’s preferred themes, or it may not. In my experience, the first thing that comes to mind is often something that I have spent time thinking about most recently,  like the movie I’ve enjoyed a lot and which I’ve seen just a few days before. This isn’t optimal when looking for a relatively permanent or representative-over-time favorite, but if favoritism has no continuity, then impulse might be the only way to ever get a glimpse of the instantaneous (and therefore truest) favorite.  

Finally, it is possible that, even under the considerations of either impulse or thematic representation (or an amalgam of both), one’s choice of favorite fails to be (or feel) true. I do not know if I can ever be satisfied with the label of favorite on a thing—sometimes the label lessens the thing in my mind by giving it a sense of importance or sanctification which I feel it should not have. I think that is true of what I impulsively believe to be my favorite space. But since no alternative seems satisfactory, this space will have to do.  

A little over a thousand miles southwest of here, there is a room I’m thinking of which serves as the functional nucleus of a house. I can’t easily estimate its dimensions (I haven’t been there since  January’s break, so all my description should probably be taken with a grain or two of salt), but it’s made up of two roughly equivalently-sized and semi-distinct areas which each comfortably fit not too many people and are divided by a countertop extending about two thirds the width of the room, with enough space for two people to pass between the wall and the end of the countertop at once. The length of the room is more (but not too much more) than twice that width. The longer dimension is aligned roughly north-south, and about half of the wall opens into the house’s front entry-room on the north-facing end. The walls have a color, though their position as contextualizing backdrop to the room means that I can’t name it. Certainly not white, but certainly not red, like the front room is. Light-colored, an opening shade rather than an enclosing one. 

Three large and clearly very old windows take up most of the south-facing wall—though they’re really all one window with two mullions that keep the moving sashes a reasonable width. This window is the primary light source during the day. Its light feeds, besides the people inhabiting the room, several large plants that dominate the south side. The plants tower over a squarish table which seats at least six, which is less than the table’s true capacity because some of the seat-space is taken up by the same plants. An ancient chair sits against the western wall just south of the countertop, facing towards the east. One of the house’s two dogs spends a great deal of time on that chair. That dog is called Louie, and is a Vizsla—the first Vizsla I’ve ever met, or heard of. The other dog, Rosie, is ancient and, when not in too much pain, likes to be pet gently. She stands pressed against your leg like only old dogs do, and growls nervously when overstimulated, threatening any who might make her yet more overwhelmed. She’s a very comforting presence. When I was there, the house’s cat didn’t spend too much time in that room, but he is worth mentioning for his haunt on the stairwell is visible from the base of the staircase, which opens out to the northeast corner of the room.  

The floor is an ancient (like the windows, like the house) hardwood which feels weathered like my aunt’s colonial farmhouse does. It smells welcoming like that house, too, though here the dogs aren’t overwhelming and the cleaning regimen is more existent. The eastern wall, besides an electric fireplace set where an old wood fireplace probably was, is largely a bookcase set into the wall that houses a stupendous number of books. Also on the bookcase and its immediate surroundings: a massive coffee grinder, various family photos, a collection of (probably) handmade ceramic cups, aged trim around the fireplace, a dog bed at its base.  

The counter turns ninety degrees towards the north once it meets the western wall, running to meet the room’s end. This longitudinal portion is broken only by appliances (toaster, microwave perhaps) on top of it and the sink itself. A dishwasher is present under this portion of the counter, and an oven might be. Cabinets line the wall above the sink (maybe that’s where the microwave is), and a coffee maker stands in a privileged position south of the sink—it is the most vital of this family’s appliances. 

The stovetop lays on the jutting-out countertop, opposite the magnet-festooned fridge against the front wall. The oven’s other potential location is underneath the stovetop (as they may be one unit with a gas stovetop, like mine at home, but also might not be. I feel that the stovetop is electric and separate). The countertop reflects (not literally, since it’s not at all reflective) the incredibly textured ceiling from the last time the house was renovated, a few decades ago—though luckily much of the original trim and flooring from the circa 1890 building remains. It’s a very strange house, geometrically nonstandard and eclectic in almost every sense. But it is also warm, and unified in that every bit of eclecticism comes from the same people, and all together the space contains those people in it.  

I think the reason this fits as a favorite space, and why it may have been my first impulse and yet still be representative of some larger theme, is that the patterns of the space remind me very much of their equivalent in my own family. The dimensions are certainly different, and my kitchen’s floors are cork, and my house is probably a good half-century younger at least, but they feel essentially similar. 

That similarity, though, borders on the indescribable. Much of it probably physical, despite the structural differences: our countertops are at a similar height, and both are piled with food, chargers,  and magazines—though the proportions of each are different. I sat at a stool facing towards the kitchen half of the space, laptop or magazine or coffee sat on the countertop in front of me, to form the most important social memories of my life at home. Those memories define what I think of as a “good”  social space, full of the kind of interactions and smells (of sizzling food, of baking dessert, of arrayed takeout) that make me comfortable, that make me feel like I’m performing “home,” that are healthy for me. So sitting at a stool facing towards the kitchen-half of that older kitchen, laptop or magazine or coffee sat on the countertop in front of me, felt very nice. 

But just reminding one of a formative space does not justify calling something a favorite, since that formative space assumes a superior position as referent, the more real version of the sign. And it is not that the older kitchen is somehow better than my own. In fact, upon consideration, choosing the referent that is my childhood kitchen-slash-dining table to be my favorite sounds like the obvious choice. A reason for the impulsive choice may then be the recency of it: the older kitchen I visited for the first time not too long ago. Or, it is a bias against my own home that I have always had. My parents both left their homes after high school and never went back except to visit, never will go back. I’ve always thought that was beautiful, loved the diasporic spread of my extended family across the country. So while I love the spaces that make up my childhood home, they are impermanent. Not only are they impermanent, but I don’t want them to be permanent. I want to participate in or make spaces that are like that, not as recreations, but as familiar patterns and rituals that are themselves healthy. That’s what separates my impulsive choice of the newer-to-me older kitchen from the older, newer one: I feel like I  could live in the former for the rest of my life. 


Dustin Copeland ’25 is a staff writer
dcopeland25@amherst.edu