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Downsizing Space, Upsizing Life*

The other day I was reading this hilarious tiny house post by the witty blogger behind Hipstercrite, and found myself screaming, “GODDAMMIT, YES!”

Let me first caveat this by saying that, like Hipstercrite, I wholeheartedly acknowledge all the positive things tiny houses represent: environmental conservation, recycling (e.g., you quite literally poo where you eat), de-materialism (it should be a word), blah blah blah good things. Hell, my parents live in a semi-subterranean, off-grid hobbit house in the middle of the woods. (But it’s more than one room.)

The Alabama Hobbit Hole, aka The Mirarchi Homestead

I get it. Being good to the earth is awesome.

But you know what else is awesome? Being good to yourself. Which means giving yourself space enough to think, eat, contemplate life’s mysteries, watch movies, and poo without the smell competing with the chili bubbling on the stove outside the tiny house’s bathroom “door” (it’s a curtain, y’all).

It’s no secret that I love talking and writing about design, mostly because I don’t know the professional ins and outs, and wing it whenever I’m decorating our apartment. But I have to say, if Andy and I ever moved into a tiny house, we’d probably end up getting a divorce approximately 6 minutes after walking through the door. (Although it’d probably make for good reality TV: Two Gays, One Tiny House, and An Obese Chihuahua: Who’ll Come Out On Top…or Dead?!)

We both love having our own space. Which is why our historic apartment in Raleigh was amazing. In fact, the other day Apartment Therapy re-posted our House Tour in their “Pride at Home” series following the SCOTUS decision. That was pretty awesome, not just for its timing and the fact I finally felt like an all-star, but also for the window it gave us into our lives a few years back.

We re-toured it, and remarked about how most of the stuff we saw has since been sold or gifted away. (And it also gave me an opportunity for ample self-loathing when I saw myself in those skinny pants, and my hippie hair. Oy!) Then we looked around our Seattle digs, and realized just how much we’ve downsized since moving from North Carolina to California to Seattle.

I mean, when we first landed in California, we were in a 450 square foot studio apartment in Koreatown, and most of our stuff was in a Gardena storage facility (oh, how little we knew the geography). Which, coming from our 1,100 square foot historic Raleigh duplex, felt like a glorified walk-in closet.

Ah, yes. The living-bed-work room. All in one tiny space! Bah!

Thankfully, the only thing we did right with that apartment was sign a 6-month lease.

And then we were off to West Hollywood – a step up space-wise with an actual bedroom and generous living-dining room. Still, it was maybe 850 square feet – quite a bit smaller than what we were used to. Thankfully, it had a great deal of built-in storage – so all of our random crap (and some furniture) was stowed away.

More space!

But then Seattle happened. We loved the new-old space immediately. But when the boxes kept coming and coming and coming, and the movers bid me a “good luck” with nods to the cardboard box forest behind me, I realized that this apartment was quite a bit smaller than our WeHe digs. (We never knew how big our WeHo place was, because the square footage was never listed.)

Big, open spaces. Big, open spaces. And breathe.

Not only that, but we have one closet.

And when I mean one closet, I don’t mean one walk-in closet and five other closets.

I mean one closet in the whole apartment. Granted, it’s a walk-in, but when you factor in all of the random domestic detritus you always need but have to store (towels, blankets, clothes, coats, umbrellas, ironing board, cleaning products, that one box of holiday decor you allow your husband to have…), you need at least two closets. The only other “closet” we have is completely occupied by our stackable washer-dryer, for which I’ll gladly sacrifice the space.

Honestly, though, as annoying as it’s been having only one closet, it keeps us honest. No hoarding clothes or shoes or furniture. Our space is full enough now, so anything new we bring it means something else goes out.

Except for Fiesta. There’s always room for rare I-will-cut-you-for-that Fiesta pieces. (One of the main reasons why we could never live in a tiny house.)

Always room for Fiesta!

We’ve culled a lot. And when I mean a lot, I mean that the only decorative stuff we have is what we see (except for some framed art under the bed – that ain’t going anywhere). And the only furniture we retained are pieces that pull double-duty, except for those necessary chairs. So our sideboards and cabinets hold dishes (all of which we use) and DVDs, and all of our clothes and shoes and coats and tools and gardening supplies are stored in the bedroom dressers and walk-in closet.

Even though this move was exhausting because of majorly downsizing, it was totally worth it. Do we love stuff? Absolutely. But we don’t need more of it to feel like we’ve succeeded in life, nor do we need a tiny house to convince us that we’re leading a quintessentially “simple life.”

And while this is the smallest apartment we’ve ever lived in (and will probably ever live in), it goes without saying that it’s still more than most folks in the world have. There’s something about living in a small(er) space that anchors this in the fore of my mind; it reminds me to be thankful for this little slice of life, and to cherish everything in it – because what we’ve chosen to retain is what we feel matters most.

Plus, it’s sort of fun transitioning formerly decorative stuff into the functional realm (e.g., the dough bowl that used to hold pine cones in my parents’ house, looked Spartan and old and beautifully empty in our WeHo apartment, and will now be turned into a container for a succulent garden in Seattle).

But there is such a thing as too small a space, and I need more than one pan to cook with.

My ideal is to have another bedroom for guests (or, you know, a kid) and another bathroom. (I also like to occasionally channel Mary-Louise Parker in The Client and tell Toby that all I want is “A little white** house with a walk-in closet.” (Nix the white.) It’d also be great not to have to design everything along a wall in our living room, but I’m done worrying about “design rules.”

Our pared down library

I think our space works just fine, and doesn’t look half bad either. So while we won’t be investing in a tiny house anytime soon, I’ll take some of the tenets from that ascetic lifestyle and map it onto our slightly more material-bloated, less claustrophobic 745 square foot Capitol Hill perch.

After all, Toby’s not about to pare-down any of his toys.

Toby isn't letting a single one go. No tiny house for him!

(*I’m pretty sure upsizing isn’t a word. But it should be.)

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Dog Daze

“GIVE ME THE GODDAMN CHICKEN!”

Boa-like, Toby unhinges his jaw and attempts to swallow the entirely intact fried chicken breast he’s just scavenged from a throng of bamboo. Like a tiny, voracious panda.

So, here I am. It’s 7:00 AM on Santa Monica Boulevard and I’m performing in “That’s My Chicken!” starring Toby (as McChubberpants), Matt (as Obscenity-yelling Dad), and Fried Chicken Breast (as Delicious Morsel Certain to Give McChubberpants Explosive Diarrhea).

Me: *Unintelligible expletives while reaching into gaping pup maw*

Toby: DISIZBESTDAHYEVAH. TOBYLUVCHIKN *gulp-slobber*

Fried Chicken Breast: I can’t help that everyone loves me. Except the bastard who threw me into this fucking bamboo.

I had these grand notions about adopting a dog. That there’d be bells and whistles and angelic harps when we first brought home our furry child.

Instead, it just sort of happened that we adopted him — a boy no less.

See, we’d planned on adopting two female dogs — naming one Andrea and the other Emily, and at random moments calling out to them whilst channeling our best Meryl-as-Miranda Priestly impressions.

“Emily. Emily. There you are, Emily. How many times do I have to scream your name?”

But then Toby came along, and his name just seemed too fitting to change. Laid back and not so in-your-face as some of the other dogs, he just puttered around the activity yard while we tried to cajole him over with hot dog bits and cheese. Completely uninterested, he set to his primary task: peeing on all the things.

“We’ll take him.”

***

Flash forward a week after he’s come home. It’s midnight, and I’ve bolted upright, thrown myself out of bed, and am already in the living room by the time I actually realize I’m awake. Somehow, our little Houdini got out of his microfiber bed, tossed aside his microfiber throw, ignored his overstuffed bumble bee toy, and decided to wake the dead at the witching hour.

Over the next few days, coffee and stubble complemented dog hair-coated attire as Andy and I made our foray into being daddies. We fretted, worried, went overboard with praise when he shit outside, and couldn’t possibly stay mad at him for doing something horrendous once we heard his doggy snoring and sleep farting. And before we knew it, he was three pounds heavier and hoarding all of his toys.

***

In the end, I declare “That’s My Chicken!” a draw — he’s swallowed a few bites’ worth, but no bones.

“You know, you’re going to have to shape up when your sister gets here.”

Toby sniffs himself, then looks down the street.

Making the decision to get a second dog only six months after Toby wasn’t one that we made lightly.

With Toby, we have a routine. We know what to do — what he likes, despises, and how we can use the latter to our advantage. And his bedding and toys and other accoutrements don’t fuck up our design aesthetic.

Having dogs doesn't mean sacrificing design!

All around, it’s a win.

But then we started looking around our apartment and thinking that we have just enough resources to make a difference in one more dog’s life. And that’s really what it comes down to in the end — effecting change, whenever we can.

So, Pearl came home yesterday.

The new addition!

And sure, she’s going to need plenty of help getting acclimated to her new life with a new little brother and two fathers obsessed with making her comfortable. There will be ups and downs and moments of us wondering what in the fuck we were thinking.

But there will also be moments of pure bliss.

Like yesterday, after we brought her home. She scampered around, and occasionally peed on things while I hurried after her spraying Simple Green all over the place. Toby, slightly amused and slightly disgusted at the whole situation, surveyed from his perch before surreptitiously stealing most of Pearl’s toys. Adoption detritus layered every surface — bags here, toys there, a leash or two draped over furniture. Sunlight filtered through the curtains and the air conditioner sputtered on. And everyone started to settle.

Oh, Pearl.

Toby, the toy hoarder.

Sleepy dad.

I looked around and took stock of it all. And smiled.

It’s not the perfect life. But I never wanted to be perfect.

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Will Lap Dance for Luxury

I can’t dance.

If I learned anything from being called to the front of my ninth grade Physical Science class by a perverted coach-teacher and made to perform the chicken dance so that my team could earn extra credit on the next test, it was that.

Not that my team cared. After all, my tragic display gave them just enough time to tear apart my notebook whilst copying my homework.

Go team!

Anywho…

Now that Andy and I live in a big city, it’s hard not to have our daydreams of owning a home almost forcibly ripped out of our heads by cray-cray real estate prices.

But I don’t care. One day, we’ll own a cute little house. I just know it.

And I hope it looks something like this Craftsman that we drool over every single time we’re en route to Runyon Canyon.

I LOVE YOU.

It’s the last former rental in a now thriving pocket neighborhood — full of beautiful, insanely well-maintained bungalows and cottages. I mean, I love this house so much that if it was a halfway handsome man, I’m pretty sure we’d have a threesome.

I mean, check out these stone…piers.

I love rocks.

And that wood..work.

Hello, handsome.

Okay, I’ll stop. You get it: I want a house. And I know we’ll have one.

Until then, I’ll be more than happy with our apartment — a fortuitous find on a nice, quiet street in the heart of West Hollywood.

And sure, I’d love it if we had a little outdoor space all to ourselves. Like a lovely balcony that we could flood with light at night to showcase to the envious gays lurking in the darkness listening to us laughing about how rich and wonderful we are.

Romeo, Romeo. Where in the fuck did you get that balcony?

Not that I lurk. *Creepy giggles*

But don’t we always want a little more?

Poor, cute, doomed duplex.

Just one more big ass slice of that American Dream pie that we’ve been forcing down our gullets for so damn long? We always want something bigger and better and generally amazing.

Infilled grossness.

Rather than the simple beauty right in front of us.

Like one of my anthropology professors once said, it’s all about learning to see — and see what’s really important.

It’s looking around at what we have, and what we’ve accomplished — being proud of that.

Home sweet home. For now, it's perfect.

And working toward our own definitions of success and happiness. Be they made of mortar and wood and stone, or paper and ink and fond memories.

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Developing Design

It may speak to my superficiality or materiality or some other -ality, but whenever I find myself completely overwhelmed by whatever I’m doing — like, say, trying to turn various stories from my life into a memoir — I like to take more than a minute to lose myself in everything around me.

Whether I’m in our apartment or a coffee shop or out walking around, I enjoy dissecting the designs that’re writ tangible all around us. What they say about us, our lives, our interests.

How they’re charged with the political.

Fun with political pins!

The unexpectedly beautiful.

Oh, light. You bring out the best in things.

The humorously macabre.

Disturbingly delightful.

The whimsical.

Apartment, etc 149

How everything we’ve built this past year has been layered with texture and life.

And while I know I’m no design guru, it’s funny to hear how certain things we’ve done in our apartment resonate with others. How adding a bit of this or that brings the whole room together — makes it actually feel like a home.

I’ve written plenty about how much I love design. But our latest digs are definitely the most mature and fun to date. And while its size might not compare to our massive Raleigh apartment, it’s still full of vitality.

When we first moved in, between staving off panic attacks and hauling things up the stairs, I had no idea how we were going to make this space work — what with its odd layout, the awesome but huge windows taking up valuable wall space, the tiny kitchen, and the dearth of storage. But after we culled a bit more and got creative with the space, things started coming together.

And I started embracing certain design faux pas I’d worked to avoid in the past.

(1) Don’t orient everything along the wall. When facing a lot less space, sometimes you have to orient most everything along the walls. But by floating a few pieces in the middle, and experimenting with different heights and textures — wood and metal and glass — things still work.

Walls can be useful.

(2) Don’t overload the walls with art. HA! That’s hilarious. After perusing photos of past apartments, I realized how awful — and overwhelmed — the walls looked: I’d tacked every possible thing to the walls with no real plan in mind. But you know what? When you’re unpacking boxes in a confined space and just want things up and off the floor, you have to get creative. So we pulled just about every piece of art out, made our cases for displaying some and boxing up others, and just started hammering. At first, I thought it’d look horribly overdone. But now, I like it — it’s a lot, but not too much.

Ah, art.

(3) De-clutter every surface. Now, I generally loathe clutter. But if done in a contained way, it can work. Especially in a small apartment where things that you need have to be within reach. It’s all about cherry-picking what’s most useful and making it accessible.

Lots of stuff. But it's contained. And works.

Above all else, though, you have to have fun. And that’s what we did. It took a while to find it beneath cardboard boxes and insane amounts of packing paper. But we’ve struck a happy medium between cluttered and ordered, fun and funky.

You gotta have fun, y'all.

A place that pretty much sums us up.

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Nesting, Y’all!

Anyone who knows me — hell, anyone who has met me once in a bar — knows that, when it comes to nesting, I nest hard.

And I’m not a minimalist.

Which is why I’ve been on a crazy-long writing hiatus.  (Alright, I’m also lazy.)

But, I like to think that I stand a better chance of getting some quality writing done when the house is a home, and this magpie is all finished prancing about the nest, adding bits and baubles and sparklies.

(And if y’all didn’t catch that reference to The Secret of Nimh, shame on yourselves! Go rent it now!  I mean, buy it.  I mean, download it.  I mean…)

As I was saying, I love design.  I love interior spaces.  I love marrying all of it into something cohesive that reads like a place where I want to spend a lot of time.  Or at least someplace where I can get completely bombed and maybe pass out on the floor.

And that’s exactly what we achieved in Raleigh.

But, it’s been a while.  And Toto, we’re not in Raleigh anymore.

***

Suffice it to say I was more than a little nervous when we rediscovered a lot of our stuff — y’all know, all of that fun decor that’d been stored away for six months.  Most of which was last seen getting loaded onto a semi in Raleigh.

And then unloaded on the other side of the country, into either our storage unit in a galaxy far, far away (Gardena)…

The other 3/4.

…or into our cramped Koreatown closet — a.k.a. our six-month studio.  (Remember that adventure?)

But now, we’ve somehow managed to shoehorn ourselves into the neighborhood we’d coveted from afar…

The new digs!

have moved in…

On the road again...

…and have even adopted a little ball of joy — Toby (a.k.a. Jabba the Pup).

Toby, a.k.a. Jabba the Pup.

Still, stuff has to get stowed.  Furniture must be moved.  And you can only stand that cardboard smell for approximately three minutes before it becomes maddening and you’re running around in a cucumber mask demanding someone clean up this mess!

Cardboard sea...

Slowly but surely — and with a few vodka chasers — we’ve managed to pull things together.

The living room, less the cardboard forts...

And rip down those horrendous vertical blinds.

And while we still have so much art stored in closets, we’ve decided that — since we can’t coat the walls in paint — we’ll cover them with paintings.

If you can't coat the walls in paint, coat'em in paintings.

Because if we’re going to go all out — be one piece of furniture away from descending into “cluttered” territory, or one painting away from cray-cray studio wannabes — we have to do it up right.

So, bring on the oddball pieces — like Andy’s childhood desk.  I had no idea where this was going to go until I just owned it — shoved that sucker at a diagonal, pulled it out, and made it something useful again. The student desk is no match for design innovation!(Side note: being completely dazed by sinus infection medication helps.)

All in all, we’ve thrown everything into a pot, set it to boil, and created something that’s not too cold, not too hot.Just right.

But just right.

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A Chance Metamorphosis

The minute I walk through the door, I know this isn’t our future home. And so does the aged landlord’s grandson who — resigned to his teenage fate of shuttling Gramps around — sits on the stairway, just beyond the front door.

Meh.

“So, you got other places you’re lookin’?”

His eyes belie a subversive hopefulness.

“Yep. A slew. But this is really nice.”

A knowing, wry smile cracks along his jawline as he scratches the back of his neck. But his grandfather doesn’t want compliments. Just absolutes.

“You both — you and your friend — have job, yes?”

“Yes, we both have jobs.”

He stares hard, as if trying to elicit a confession. But I stare back, unblinking.

By now, we’ve recited our lie so often it’s become irrefutable truth.

Through machinations and occasional subterfuge, we’ve wrapped our larval plan in a cocoon — spun by equal parts frustration and desperation — and transformed it into a winged bastard. And we fly on its tattered wings — right into the gaping, beastly maw of the unknown.

“I see there’s no electrical outlet plate around that plug.”

I point toward the kitchen counter. His concentration breaks, and five excuses tumble out of his mouth. I don’t really care. I just want to leave, and need something to occupy his attention.

***

“But you’ve seen this place, right?”

Friends — a pack concerned and intrigued — ask repeatedly.

“Well, of course.”

It’s not exactly a lie. I mean, we’ve seen the place online. And plenty of beautiful places in person. But most of the beautiful, spacious places will suck our savings dry in months.

I wouldn't even put up a shower curtain.

Still, we solider on.

Eventually, we’re able to twist our lie enough to convince a property management company to lease us a studio. With an LA address in hand, we prep for the next step: the cross-country move.

But then, less than 24 hours later, we get the good news. The bright light at the end of the increasingly long tunnel is suddenly blinding us rather than teasing us from afar.

***

Now, with our six month lease nearing its end, we’re channeling optimism while scoping out new digs — with a new budget, and a new outlook. Because this new place will be much more than a landing spot: it’ll be a launching pad.

So we want it to be right — to have the things that will make us want to call it home, the bones to massage and mold into aesthetic, functional bliss.

That’s where a list comes in handy. A list of things that each of us has compromised on in the past, and later kicked ourselves for.

Everyone has their own wants and needs, but here’re a few that we’re longing for — hoping to find on the other side of the soon-to-be-opening doors of our future.

(1) Pet friendly. As if we weren’t going to adopt a pet soon enough, I had to go and get a job at an animal welfare non-profit. (Shucks. Hello, three-legged corgi-pug cuteness.)

(2) Light. Six months is a long time to come back to an apartment facing a plain concrete building. *Sad trombone.*

(3) Parking. It’s LA. And we’ve been having to park in the same parking deck with vehicular fossils from the LA riots. And deal with opportunistic, asshat restaurant valets parking us in. Enough said.

LA riot fossil, and parked in cars. Thanks, opportunistic asshat valets from across the street!

(4) Charm. Living in an apartment that’s basically a square, white, sterile box is what I imagine hell to be like. If I believed in hell. And while our little studio is cute and funky, it’s the little part that gets us.

(5) Space. Sure, we culled a lot. But we still have pretty things. Many, many pretty things.

(6) Location. While West Hollywood wasn’t at the top of our list initially, hearing about its enforced rent control moved it from bottom to top. Talk about a versatile list.

(7) Green space. This one will probably be relegated to the “sacrifice” list. But the inner gardener in me can hope.

(8) Kitchen. I’d really like to avoid having to perform Matrix-esque moves to get the Brita out of the refrigerator.

I have to inhale to get to the fridge and back.

***

From previous hits and misses, we know all too well the importance of holding out for what feels right. But we’re also well aware of the fact that our wants will have to acquiesce to needs, and those to reality.

Still, two gays can hope.

Regardless, the most important thing for us to remember is that, whatever mix of wants/needs we get, we’ll make them work — transforming them into something fun and useful.

Something to build upon.

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If the Shoe Fits

Do you ever find yourself replaying The Devil Wears Prada intro scene in your head, thinking about how much it mirrors your own life–you know, the crazy-beautiful one made all the more fabulous by wearing uber glamorous clothes and buying ridiculously expensive jewelry and waking up next to insanely beautiful models?

Me too! We’re so wonderful. And rich.

Alright.

Maybe I’m not glamorous or super rich, but I do have an extremely handsome guy whose tolerance of my annoyingly incessant Instagramming borders on award-worthy. But I’ll gladly take him over a stocked wardrobe any day. Because even a little glamour can be stretched a long, long way–preferably over the flocks of crow’s feet hovering around my eyes.

***

Clothing is armor. It, quite literally, keeps you contained. And not just in the preventing-wardrobe-malfunction sense.

Having spent years working outside–digging and sifting soil, traipsing through the wilderness, getting electrocuted by cattle fences–I was unaware of what staple pieces every person should have in their professional wardrobe. Especially since most of my clothes were ripped, stained, or otherwise destroyed.

Shovel bumming it.

But on the weekends, I was able to wear what I wanted. And I’d stupidly assumed that being an “individual” meant eschewing those “mainstream” ideas of “fashion assimilation.” (And I’m pretty sure I put everything in quotation marks, too.) After all, I felt on-level fashion-wise with everyone around me.

But then I took a look around, and realized I was basing my fashion off of Disinterested Old Academics (DOA’s). And then I got an office job. Which meant more public face time.

So I upgraded my boots and jeans, threw in a little questionable taste, and went on my merry way to work at an Army installation. And while I was mostly surrounded by a cornucopia of fashion faux pas, I also had the distinct pleasure of working with young professionals who dressed, well, professionally–appropriately for their age, body type, and job level.

Still, good taste often attracts naysayers–sideways glances, rolling eyes–from the “lifer” side of the office; you know, the folks who’ve given up and drilled a permanent outhouse for their pop-up camper life. (I don’t know what that means either, but the image in my head fits.) But who cares?

Despite one old fart’s persistent compilation of nylon pants–fully equipped with in-built camel toe–baseball cap, turtleneck, and paisley leggings, the well-dressed among us got repeated compliments, and unintentionally recreated a few Sex and the City sidewalk scenes on our way out through the barbed wire fences to Starbucks.

But that didn’t stop me from paying homage to all of the bad taste I’d experienced on the eve of my glittery exit.

Fairy princess style, y'all.

 ***

Andy’s influence on my wardrobe has been pretty stellar. And plenty of people realize it. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that, but if it feels as good as the cashmere sweaters I’ve inherited from him, then that’s fine by me. (Oh, so soft.)

A purge of residual nods to my darker, misunderstood, failed goth years coincided with an influx of tailored pants, high-quality button downs, and a few blazers. And belts. And cedar shoetrees–the point of which I never understood, until I purchased some big boy shoes that I never want to see harmed or deflated or destroyed or dampened.

Oh, the places these feet have gone.

Basically, I want them draped in plastic. Or at least have plastic draped over all puddles, oil slicks, and dog poop they may splatter. Because they represent my new beginning–at an office where people dress to impress, where their clothes accentuate their character and empower them.

Hello, new shoes/beginnings/gorgeousness!

So as I caressed my new shoes, I realized how gutting and reinventing a wardrobe can be even more cathartic than culling stuff. Because while that chair may be nice, you’re not wearing it–it doesn’t perfectly frame your shoulders, or add that bit of pizzazz that you might need in the morning after a horrendous meeting.

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll remind you that your spark hasn’t been snuffed out.

Just reinvented, given a new life–a new sole.

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Haute, Hidden Potential: Designing Life

Like flipping through an old high school yearbook after a few fingers’ worth of scotch, scanning through an old external hard drive can dredge up more than bad hair, angsty clothes, and Ewww, that guy! memories.

For me, this latest traipse through the digitally curated past unearthed some shockingly offensive photos. Some that made me wonder if there was any humanity left in the world. And confirmed why I hadn’t had much luck in the love department.

No, they weren’t of my excessively over-plucked eyebrows (although they surely didn’t help). They were of my first apartment.

The Lair of the Undergraduate, 2006.

Now, everyone who has ever lived alone has a few photos like these. Probably even Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler. (Actually, especially Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler.)

Not only did my first apartment scream I can drink Smirnoff Ice now! but it appeared as though Mr. Magoo had ingested a handful of psychotropic mushrooms and tripped all night. In short, I was having an identity crisis–floundering somewhere between Slightly Goth and Very Gay, neither one of which could fully breathe amid the cluttered cat lady tschotskes, taped up art, and dumpster-pilfered furniture. Case in point: a gnawed particle board shelf that I’d painstakingly screwed together and painted in rainbow colors before realizing it’d been saturated with cat piss.

But with time, experience, and friends forcibly knocking crap out of my hands with a Leave it on the damn curb! I re-tooled my style lens, and augmented my behavior a bit. Like, say, ceasing to hoard historic doors and turning them into headboards. (Although I still sort of pride myself on doing that before it became chic.)

Making chic headboards before my time? Not likely, 2006.

Instead, they were recycled back into historic homes, and I started to get my design sense in tune.

***

A slightly different aesthetic took hold as I fledged from undergrad to graduate school. And while my style did mature somewhat, it still exhibited some kid-like elements–and not just tattered band posters hanging over my bed.

Growing up a little bit, 2007.

Growing up. But still cluttered, 2007.

And while I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was off, I did know that I loved antiques–old, rough pieces with history or mystery about them. But instead of channeling that in a controlled way, I pulled an Exorcist move, spinning around like a whirligig, vomiting old things all over the place. It was haphazard at best. But at least I was trying to define spaces, and be more selective in what pieces I did bring in from the street.

So, in lieu of a cat pee shelf, I opted for a castoff Art Deco cabinet (which we still have).

Discarded Deco. Rescued and still used, 2007.

And while I may not have used it efficiently at the start, I knew that I liked it–that there was something about its style that struck me. It seems my taste continued to mature–from Oh, it’s sort of usable! to Oh, it’s good quality and worth it!

***

After a few more moves, my design sense began to translate into more cohesive spaces with less, or more contained, clutter.

A more adult bedroom. Sort of, 2009.

More changes. Still lacking something, 2009.

No longer resigned to have things just because they happened to be cool, I wanted what I did because I saw them as functional investments–and treated them as such.

Getting a sense of my own style. But still, not quite there, 2010.

Quality over cheapness. (And really, they're not mutually exclusive.) 2010.

Along the way, I hemorrhaged bits and baubles that I’d kept just because–they’d been in my grandparents’ house; they’d had a story associated with them; they’d been with me ever since I could remember. Still, before I culled them, I snapped a photo–which takes up much less space, but still triggers the same memories. After all, life is about you figuring yourself out, not toting relatives’ crap with you.

***

It wasn’t until Andy moved in that I learned a critical design lesson: Sometimes, it’s better to let go.

Household melding became an exercise in maximizing functionality within our space without sacrificing our distinct styles, or having one overpower the other.

A more adult dining room, 2012

A little of him, a little of me. Balancing it out.

And after a design hiccup here and there, and plenty of conversations about what should stay and what should go, we created something that captured us rather than just me or Andy. Did we both let go of pieces that we’d cherished? Yes. But the result was worth it.

In many ways, we’d outgrown those particular pieces–not so much in the sense that they weren’t quality or “adult” enough, but rather they’d always been the “pretty” pieces that hadn’t really been used much. And letting them go to homes where they’d be used and cherished made the separation that much easier. And you know what? I still don’t regret letting any of them go.

***

Design can be so damn delightful. And a little draining–both on you and your wallet/purse/murse. But it can also be terribly rewarding. So much so that it makes you want to cry at the thought of having a cleverly designed oasis of your own, and of your own making. (Seriously.)

Plenty of professional designers pepper their streams of consciousness with references to fabrics and styles and color swatches to such a degree that you just want to throw your hands up, scream to a deity or two, pour yourself a cocktail, and watch reruns of Days of Our Lives on your overstuffed, tattered sofa.

But you don’t always need professional advice to take matters into your own hands–especially when it comes to figuring out your own style, and what really makes your place feel like home.

So put down that damn Bloody Mary and pay attention! Here’re a few things I’ve learned along the way.

(1) Know what you like and embrace it. Plenty of people abide by the adage I may not know much about XYZ but I know what I like. But equally as many gloss over how important it is to acknowledge exactly that, and how to focus your aesthetic lens on similar things when creating a space for yourself. It can be a particular form, color, texture, theme, or object that just screams, THIS IS WHO YOU ARE! Build on it.

(2) Have the courage to go out on a design limb. Like being haute couture, innovative design can sometimes push you out of your comfort zone. But the result can be phenomenal–whether you’re recovering a chair in paisley or refinishing a flea market steal.

Before and after of one of my first refinishing projects--a flea market steal! It's still one of my favorites.

(3) Reuse anything you can. It’s often cheaper, with an even greater payoff. Like, say, my grandfather’s wooden skis turned photo ledges. Or my childhood pencil-toolbox turned spice caddy.

Old skis turned photo ledges, 2012.

My old childhood pencil/took box turned spice caddy.

(4) Use found furniture or homegoods to fit your needs. I’m not above rummaging along the curb for cool castoffs, or even something that’s not necessarily cool, but useful for the time being. For instance, take the planter stand Andy and I picked off a curb in West Hollywood.

Temporary, but functional use of a salvaged planter stand.

Is it amazing? Not really. But it works for now as a toiletry tower in our storage devoid bathroom. So who cares if the gays who tossed it were probably watching us with pity, exclaiming, “Look at the poor gays, honey. Aren’t they sweet? Hopefully the Crate & Barrel truck won’t run them over.” Once we land our own WeHo apartment, I’ll paint this sucker silver and load it down with succulents.

(5) Practice controlled culling. It’ll do you wonders.

***

With all this said and written, you might still be asking Why should I care about design? And I totally understand. I mean, I’d always thought of Interior Design as a frilly, inconsequential profession. But then I realized how incredibly important having a well designed personal space is to framing your perspective, and informing your behavior.

Good design starts at home. And takes a lot of practice. Still, it’s all about the process. And you first have to take a leap and try. Because, really, what’s the worst that can happen? You fail? That’s not really a big deal. The most unfortunate outcome of any endeavor in life is regret–wondering if things could have been different if you’d told fear to sit on it.

Perhaps I’m mapping more onto design than I should. But really, I think growth and change are most always reflected in our homes–how we make things work as we move through various chapters. I know it sounds dumb. But as ludicrous as it seems now, one of the major hitches we had prior to moving was what we’d do with all of our stuff–how it’d make us feel to part with some of it. But the emotional catharsis of doing so was well worth it.

***

We often find ourselves in the fray, getting intimidated by all the glitz and glam surrounding us that we neglect to see the beauty we create–acknowledging what we do every single day to make our lives more balanced, light, and comfortable.

But the minute you start creating a more enjoyable life–starting with the space you call home–you begin to live, to unlock your potential.

To design an exciting, fulfilling life.

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Seasoning

Hunched over the cast iron skillet like a vulture over carrion, I deem Operation Frittata a success. Then slice off a slab of the eggy mixture, tossing it back and forth between my hands before demolishing it without the slightest degree of civility.

Operation Frittata is a success!

Once cooled, I carefully remove the rest of the impromptu dinner to the fridge, leaving the sturdy skillet caked with the browned, cheesy leavings. Still, the skillet exudes a bit of rude refinement–an oddly contradictory, apropos description that captures everything I love about cast iron.

And about most things in general.

Without allowing my analogy-oriented mind to deconstruct every little kitchen tool we have, I’ll just write that, like people, it takes a lot of work to season cast iron to perfection. And even then, constant maintenance to ensure it’s utility.

***

Whether it’s the pervasiveness of hipster trends, or the recession reminding us of the economic hurdles our country has had to clear, it seems that many of us–not just twenty- and thirty-somethings–are looking back a lot these days.

Some with nostalgia, some with hope.

It’s odd that we’d look back to decades filled with Depression-era hardship and Cold War-inspired paranoia and get all glazy-eyed and hopeful for the future. But it’s not that I have friends who long to build bomb shelters in their backyards, or collect twine for resale. It’s that so many of us are searching for comfort in things that have withstood the test of time, and have aged like a fine wine–the old, the worn, the refined.

A little wear gives us character.

Maybe even the ethics and morals some of us gleaned from our grandparents.

Perhaps we hope that, through osmosis, the Fiestaware teapot will pour out a few of life’s secrets with the Celestial Seasonings. (Not that I’m projecting.)

Pouring out dreams.

The vintage leather chair will cushion the blow of a failed interview, and its cracked arms will remind you, at exactly the perfect moment, that wear and tear is part of the process. (Really, I’m not projecting.)

Sit a spell.The Vornado fan won’t blow the proverbial shit your way, but will keep the breeze blowing, the air beneath your wings flowing. (Okay, I’m projecting.)

Don't blow the shi* it my way!

And sure, we don’t need things to remind us to harness our in-built tenacity, the drive to keep going.

Because that’s what movies are for! You know, those tried-and-true go-to flicks that remind you to put down the fork, step away from the frittata, and channel your inner innovator.

Julie & Julia is one of mine, even though I have to constantly remind myself that Amy Adams is a good actress–she just always gets cast as the woe-is-me-I-have-low-self-esteem character. (The real-life equivalent of me! Kidding. Sort of.). Plus, anything with Meryl (we’re on a first-name basis) lifts me up.

It’s not that the film leaves me in an ohmygawd, slack-jawed state. It’s that it makes attaining my writerly dreams seem possible. I know. I shouldn’t need a movie to remind me of that. But I think the reason why it resonates is because it’s illustrative of starting over later in life–both for Julie and Julia: two people who let life sidetrack them, but got back on course through sheer determination and lots of butter.

So maybe the root of why folks drowning in this economic cesspool are valuing vintage, antiquey things and historic spaces from our grandparents’ days is that we’re trying to channel that resolute drive, that entrenched stubbornness to not yield, to stay the course. To layer our lives and experiences with that same sense of accomplishment despite the country’s tenuous economic state and hyper-divisive political landscape.

Maybe my perspective’s skewed since several people, after chatting with me a bit, have told me I’m an “old soul.” That I frame things in a way that nods to the past. Regardless, I think there’s something more. Which shows that my inner-anthropologist will always be there–dissecting every experience, trying to distill out the greater meaning.

***

Coarse sea salt trickles out of the Fiestaware shaker and quietly ricochets inside the skillet, across its well-worn, carefully-curated sheen.

It makes me think of Norman. The phone rings.

It’s Norman.

“You know, I was just looking through my old recipes for cast iron cooking. And I figured he’d packed the pans and whatnot up in storage, or would dine out and not have need of such things.”

I smile, and laugh.

“Actually, I’m just prepping dinner now, using that big skillet you gave us. So they’re definitely not in storage. I love’em too much.”

Maybe it’s just the longevity of the things that make me appreciate them. Or their heft.

But I think it’s the stories they tell.

The lessons they embody.

The inner strengths they elicit from us, reminding us that we’re more than capable.

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Eccentric, Nonetheless

Having just spilled scalding hot coffee on his leg, Andy stands there, Riviera mug in-hand, dancing about like a cute, partially melted elf.

So, like any caring boyfriend, I jump to action.

Get a towel.

Dampen it.

Run back.

Stoop down.

And blot the Restoration Hardware sheets, to foil the in-setting coffee.

“Seriously? Focus on me!”

“That’s what you expect? After how much these cost?”

Plus, skin grows back.

I mean, really.

Any strong relationship hinges on the partners’ abilities to determine when it’s best to just take the bullet–literally, if necessary–to protect some ridiculously expensive, beloved possession.

At least that’s what I learned when I was growing up.

***

Regardless of the accident, either Laura or I was sworn to secrecy until the guilty parental unit could appropriately cover their tracks–usually with one or both of us running interference in the interim. Had we only realized the potential for blackmail, perhaps we’d have capitalized on the opportunities a bit more.

Oh, you don’t want Mom to find out about you smashing the Fairmont door, huh?”

“Yes, dear son, I’ll do anything!”

“Well, you’re in luck! It’ll only cost you a MASK car and the G.I. Joe helicopter set. And maybe my sporadic ten dollar monthly allowance could actually be monthly.”

“Of course, of course. I’ll get them immediately! And consider your allowance raised!”

*Doe eyes activate, scraped knee transforms into an arterial wound. Run to Mom.*

“MOM! I need your help. I hurt myself!” *Fake tears. Fake, lucrative tears.*

Instead, I’d stupidly nod, completely forgetting about the groundings I’d endured for breaking things in the house.

Usually, though, the guilty party could only stall for so long.

After all, doe eyes can’t quite explain why the van is being parked at an odd angle, facing away from the house. Or why the kitschy rabbit bowl looks like it got a harecut from the scalp up.

Still, the occasional case slipped under the radar unnoticed. Like The Case of the Defaced Table.

***

Every room needs an anchor piece. And a dining room table grounds more than the dining experience–it’s there to bring the family together.

Like the stairs Laura and I wanted in our new-old home, the table I’d imagined was something of a dream: a dramatic, claw-footed monstrosity large enough for two people to sit at either end and never know that one of them had farted.

I’d envisioned butlers scurrying down one side with foie gras, up the other with rosemary mashed potatoes.

Actually, Sebastian, tonight I’ll have the trifle, I’d practiced saying, experimenting with a dismissive hand wave to the imaginary platter of pickled quail eggs he’d likely offer up.

Visions of grand galas danced around in my head as Laura and I waited for our parents to cart their treasure home from the auction.

And soon, my dream was writ tangible: Long and darkly-stained with Chippendale accents, the table didn’t disappoint–it was an imposing piece that almost demanded a constant barrage of five-course dinners.

Set up in all its glory, the table’s two inch clearance on either end didn’t grant us a lot of room to overindulge at dinner. So one of the table leaves was removed, being relegated to an upstairs walk-in closet until it was needed for holiday gatherings.

In the meantime, I waited for Sebastian. But I soon realized his place was taken by my parrot-sibling Scooby, who’d oversee the entire room from his window-side perch, and toss food unfit for his consumption to the dog, usually before narrowing his beady eyes and turning a feathery cold shoulder to us all.

Still, we really could’ve used a scapegoat like Sebastian to assume the blame for the incident.

***

Especially with kids in the picture, a dining room table never really serves as just a place to eat. It’s a landing strip for everything–bookbags, magazines, general teenage angst.

And one day, it got the brunt of some tear-inducing math homework.

Once she’d finished figuring out what X really equaled out to be, Laura lifted up her paper to see the equation–hashed out in its entirety–inscribed into the table top. It seemed the imposing table had an Achilles’ heel after all: a soft, supple, easily defiled shell.

Like she did when sensing an imminent teenage fight, Mom materialized. Saw the table. And wept.

Only after she realized multiple Old English treatments weren’t doing a thing, she formulated another plan.

“Alright. Laura, help me pull the table apart so we can take out the leaf. Matthew, go upstairs and get the other one.”

We each assumed our roles, and before we knew it, the blighted leaf was removed and replaced by its mint-condition doppelganger.

“Now, get a blanket, and we’ll roll this one up and put it in the van. If your father asks where the other leaf is, just say we put it up in the attic.”

Days later, the jacked-up leaf was taken somewhere only Mom knew about, and didn’t reappear until a few weeks later.

Even before we surreptitiously put it back into the table, I could tell something was off. And so could Mom.

“It. Looks. Purple!”

She was right. It seemed the stain the woodworkers used to match the existing stain was only a few shades lighter than mauve.

For fear that another trip would result in an even worse treatment, Mom swore us to secrecy.

And reminded us every Thanksgiving thereafter to “Take care of the table.”

Wink wink. Nudge nudge.

So, every year, we did everything possible to veil the blemished leaf. And to ensure Dad’s wine glass was always full.

But one Thanksgiving, our plan got even more complicated.

As had become customary, Mom and I started pulling the table apart as Laura ran up to get the purplish leaf. But the table had been locked in place for so long, it wasn’t cooperating. So I figured exerting a little pressure wouldn’t hurt.

But after one hard tug, a disgusting crrrrrrrreakkkkch rang out and the table lurched.

From the other end of the table, Mom’s palor trended toward deathly white.

I crouched and looked underneath.

“Oooh, uh. Er. Sorry?”

“I don’t want to know. Just deal with it.”

Laura reappeared with the other leaf, and we situated everything as we had years prior. After we finished and Mom left the room, I pulled Laura aside.

“Hey, don’t worry about the leaf. I just broke the whole goddamned pedestal off one end. Don’t tell Dad.”

More winks. More nudges. Family togetherness.

***

Soon enough, The Case joined others: the cases of The Decimated Bison Skull, The Ear-less Easter Rabbit Bowl, The Shattered Mother’s Day Column, and The Obliterated Faberge Egg.

Only after a few details from these formerly anonymously-authored stories seeped into conversation, usually in a wine-fueled context and prefaced with “You remember that time…” did we start realizing that we tried to trick each other fairly routinely.

And I realized that maybe, just maybe, my maternal grandmother was right about one thing.

“Well, Matt. The family may not have the money to back it up in the traditional sense of the word, but you’re all eccentric.”

I’d rolled my eyes over the phone, nodding and wrapping a curl around my finger.

Because I’d long thought that we’d had a fairly traditional childhood.

But after asking friends if they’d had similar experiences with such subterfuge, and receiving quizzical looks in response, I realized that maybe we were a little odd.

Eccentric, nonetheless.