Throws and mirrors

Throws and Mirrors I have just bought my first house ever. It's six miles northeast of New York Mills, and it's the first real estate I have ever owned. I bought it with the money that I started saving for this very purpose when I was in college,...


and Mirrors

I have just bought my first house ever. It's six miles northeast of New York Mills, and it's the first real estate I have ever owned. I bought it with the money that I started saving for this very purpose when I was in college, unaware and blissfully unconcerned with mortgages, electric bills, the cost of oil, and IRAs. Even through my adulthood until now, I couldn't imagine caring about wall sconces or window treatments or how to most efficiently clean the carpet. Now, in doctor's waiting rooms and airports, I find myself leafing through Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, and Midwest Home.

For my adult life until now, my decorating philosophy was: 1. travel, 2. get cool souvenirs, and 3. hang them on your wall in an eclectic but pleasing array. This method of decorating served me well for my young life lived either in dorm rooms or, for the last ten years, in my rented two-room, 250 square-foot, New York City apartment. There was not much space to cover, and any wall space available was generally used for utilitarian purposes, like holding up my guitar or as a backdrop for my stereo and CD collection. There was no room for an area rug. My lighting consisted of a halogen lamp. There was barely enough space for me to walk from one side of the apartment to another. In fact, I even had wheels on my desk and coffee table so that I could tuck them back against the wall when I needed to get from the living room area to the kitchen nook.

Cleaning such a small apartment, despite my protestations, never took too long. I had a broom and dustpan stuffed into the small coat closet and a sponge by the sink. In a few hours--always too long in light of the many things I'd rather be doing--the place would look pretty well put together. I never managed to get to the Elysian state of "spotless" as defined by my cleaning-savant mother--somehow the cleaning gene skipped me--but somehow I did pretty well.


Now I realize that it was the small size of a New York City apartment that worked in my favor. I didn't have to worry about additional rooms or where to keep the extra linens. I only had enough room for what I needed. Or, more to the point, I could only need as much as I had room for. This made life simple. I couldn't shop for furniture, because anything I managed to drag up the narrow staircase and into my small apartment would end up creating an obstacle course between me and the bathroom. I couldn't buy myself new towels, because the only place for them would be on my bed--under my bed was already full of old keepsakes and photoalbums, not to mention several species of gigantic dust bunnies. I lived in a state of perfect consumer balance: anything that came into the apartment necessitated something else going out. There was no point in visiting home centers. Why tempt yourself with things you can't even pretend to fit into your home?

My new life as the person in charge of decorating a full-size house has revealed to me a great truth that I would have preferred not to acknowledge: decorating scares me. I look at the perfect homes in the magazines and can't figure out how to apply the expensive design choices to my home. The color of my new living room's carpet does not exist in any of the magazines, and I can't figure out what paint color would go with it. Each time I visit Home Depot and Menards I come back with piles of paint squares that end up littering the floors and taped to the walls. Each of which looks equally good and bad. Colors like Hint of Rose and Sea Breeze confound me. How does one even notice whether the shade of white is more blue or pink? My color sense is so poor that on a recent visit to my parents in Virginia I bought myself a fine turquoise throw blanket and matching cushions thinking they were the same color as the living room rug, only to return to see that the living room rug is actually green.

I try to console myself by remembering that the houses pictured in the magazines generally require an interior decorator and a large decorating budget to begin with and then a huge team of staging and cleaning experts to prepare it for the photo shoot. In other words--these are not pictures of how people actually live. I recently heard a story about a famous decorator who was invited to be on Oprah. She was in the middle of a divorce, but she asked her soon-to-be-ex-husband and her adult children to join her in the television-friendly family portrait. Her house--though probably far more beautifully arranged even in its messiest states than most of ours--was still not beautifully arranged enough for the photo shoot. She had to hire an entire team to come in and stage the house so that it looked good enough for TV. And the state of her real life was unthinkable for a woman who represented the ideal of living well. She had to convince her husband and daughters, who were distraught and upset about the imminent divorce, to put on fake smiles and create a happy family tableau. A few weeks later when she appeared on Oprah, the divorce proceedings well underway, she sang the praises of her family and spoke about how happy and close they all were. On Oprah, she was the matriarch of the perfect family and lived in the perfect house. At home when the cameramen left, the story was different. The image of her and her home was made up of smoke and mirrors. Or in this case, throw pillows, fake smiles, and mirrors.

That story helps me to remember that normal life is messy. Houses that look clean and artfully arranged are made that way by hours of often unappreciated effort. Beautifully decorated houses generally require the help of a design professional. So, I'm turning in the towel and acknowledging that I need some decorating help. And, by the way, if you're planning to come over and would like to visit a clean house, please give me some warning. I can virtually guarantee you that the house won't be clean if you make a surprise visit.

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