Sunday, June 3, 2012

Decoration in the Time of Catastrophe

 The Built Environment

A while back, Miss O's dear friends Q and X had a colleague to their home. Upon entering their living room—resplendent in (to name a few items off the top of my head) white Christmas lights strung around the ceiling and around a giant mirror; antique furniture, including a cable-spool coffee table ca. 1971; an organist’s bench serving as a TV stand; rocks, skulls, toys, framed photography, and a stuffed animal moose head, wall-mounted and wearing a leopard skin pillbox hat and matching scarf—the visitor remarked, “Wow, this looks like a dorm room.” Q could only say, “I never had art this nice in my dorm room.” The conversation moved to other things. When I visited, X asked me, after telling me the story, “What would make her say that?” And I looked around. Their home is beautiful. But it’s not from a catalogue.

My homes (all my life) and my friends’ homes often have a similar decorative trait: We have a lot of shit. Cool shit, original art shit, not expensive shit really, but a lot of it. We display it. We all do it in our own special ways, and quite beautifully, but our homes take on a “nesting” quality in the interweaving of eclectic and colorful shit. And everything—every single goddamned thing—has a story.

Bookshelf 1: Miss O's Personal Collection

Every object, I have found, involves a story, and the story does not begin, “We bought that at Crate and Barrel.” What I mean is, our style is not suburb-sanctioned, acceptably “adult,” or quiet. It’s loud. It’s personal. It demands an explanation. The shelves pictured above, for example, have been part of my life since 1998 or so, and are part of a bookcase built by Tom Seeley in Pennsylvania, and purchased at Brown’s Wood Stuff in Occoquan, VA. (When owner John Brown retired, he did not sell his business—he had too much integrity for that, I think. His name meant something. I had bought almost all my major furniture from him because of that, and he took that trust to heart.) The books pictured on these shelves (2 of 4) have nearly all been read, and I could tell you where I got each one, either as gift or purchase, and why. I could name for you each object, and tell you what it is or means. Okay, what the hell. (Top shelf: The mug is from George after our first summer at Bread Loaf—it was the coffee mug he’d used all that summer (inside the mug is a card that says, "Don't you hate pants?" and a plastic case for an asthma inhaler on which is written in Sharpie marker, "I need that to live"from students who share my love of The Simpsons); the Irish flag in it is from student John Kelly; Mrs. Krebapple was a birthday present from one of my classes; “I’m for Nixon” ca. 1968 was pinned to my returned windbreaker, “borrowed” from my chum Rick in high school, ca. 1982 (he’d lost the Quebec pin that had been on it, a pin I’d bought on a French class trip to that magical city, my first time out of the country), which he gave back to me after school one day while they were all working on the newspaper, by pulling the snaps violently and revealing himself to be in fact shirtless—boys; the “no W” button was a gift from George to commemorate the 2004 “When will we learn?” election; Bart Simpson was a party favor from teaching colleague Rhonda, 1994, my 30th birthday; the teapot frame was a Christmas gift from friend Patty, and the picture in it is of me in a nightgown standing by the open johnny house at JC’s cabin; the small green glass brooch (laying on its side) is an English antique, a Christmas gift from friends Tom and Ron; the picture frame is from a shop called Nepa Bhon on Macdougal Street—they are going of business I learned yesterday! No!—and the card inside is from friends Hugh and Bud, with an addition of a collage (Christmas pose with my brothers Pat, Jeff, and Mike taken by our mom on Father’s Day 2010, to be a gag gift for Mike’s friend AJ); the small box in front of it is carved from camel bone, bought for me in the Middle East by my friend Anna, who is pictured in the small circular silver frame (a gift from Patty), which I took at Texas Falls in Vermont in 1994.)

What I’m saying is, nothing on the shelf is decorative for its own sake; the placement of the objects is as my fancy dictates, but I know what each one means. (I’ll spare you the chronicle of the shelf below that.) Wherever I look, in fact, I see the history of my life:

Shelves 2, with Walls: Miss O's Personal Collection

I’ll try to be quick, L to R: Oscar Wilde biography poster from my mom’s bookstore, Crown Books in Woodbridge, VA, ca. 1989, framed by my friend Patty in Appomattox; Dave Marsh cabinet from E.E. Smith in Fredericksburg, purchased (impulsively) on an outing with late friend Terri, which we somehow managed to get into the back of her BMW (one of my favorite memories of being with her); on top of this: lamp from a thrift store in Andover, NJ (an outing with friend Jean)(No! wait—that lamp is downstairs; this lamp was a purge from my friend Mark on one of the many occasions I have helped him clean his house out), decorated with all my “single” earrings from lost pairs over the years; photo of George and Jeannie in frame from Nepa Bhon; hurricane lamp with purple candle, Christmas present from JC ca. 1995, rests on a dresser scarf tatted by my great-grandmother ca. 1900; small heart box of papier maché (in front of the photo) is from friend Betsy to commemorate our Bread Loaf graduation in 1994. Well, this isn’t quick at all. Suffice to say the sewing box on the floor is from my brothers (as well as Pat’s first fiancé—that’s a story), the bookcase a construction of wooden crates I bought in Blacksburg—that hardware store on Main Street across from Radford Bros.—ca. 1986, topped with shelving board I bought at J.E. Sears in Appomattox (D grade lumber, which I’d learned to ask for as a result of being a theater major!); on wall, the copper frames (I painted them myself) encase photos by my friend Ted Petrochko from his “Rust” series; and all that other stuff has loads of stories, too, involving peacocks, river rocks, and Dedalus books in Charlottesville, but really, you get the goddamned idea.

Dorm Room or Grown Home?

I think that woman’s comment way the hell back there came from this: We kind of stop being “creative” after age 21. Some people atrophy there: I’ve known plenty of people who decorated with thumbtacked posters, beer can pyramids, fluorescent lights, castoff couches, and butt-filled ashtrays well into their deaths. Others grew “tasteful” without seeming to feel that they were “allowed” to express who they are in their décor. Unless maybe they were expressing who they are (tasteful and bland), and that thought makes me sad, but who the hell am I?

What I mean is, I suspect a lot of people think they are supposed to stop having fun with their built environments after they graduate from college, or around that age. I remember the year I gave up putting posters up with thumbtacks: It was the year my friend Patty opened her frame shop, and I was teaching and could afford to have several meaningful items custom-framed. It was thrilling, like a real graduation into adulthood, and this shift inspired me to shape a whole built world. The next stage was framing, or otherwise displaying, not just prints and snapshots, but original art made by my friends or artists I’d met. That felt seriously cool. 

I changed my built environment in several specific ways with each move, adding layers if you will. This required conscious effort on my part, and it hurt. In my first dorm room at Virginia Tech, for example, I was a slob. In my defense, I often took 19 credit hours, always worked in the scene shop or costume shop and on the running crews of shows, and just didn’t have time to, you know, make the bed or wash my clothes, which I left conveniently piled on my side of the room as a reminder to wash them. My poor roommate, Deb, was a neat freak (whose side of the room boasted of a life-size cardboard Pink Panther, green plants, and neatness), but I liked to think I was getting more out of college than she was. Feeling superior helped assuage my guilt.

When I moved into my first apartment, I vowed to keep my mess confined to my bedroom. Not that I had a choice: My roommate, Ice Queen, a fellow theater major who acted, on occasion, was apparently looking for her MRS. degree, and wanted to practice housekeeping: the furniture (most of it hers) was her grandmother’s; her silverware set was a complete service for 12; her dishes, too, were a service for 12; and no breadcrumb on the counter went unnoticed or unremarked upon:

ICE Q: Lisa?
LISA: Yeah? [shouted amid noises of trying to finish a paper in time to get to the theater]
ICE Q:  You forgot to wipe the counter.
LISA: Oh! Sorry! Just a minute….
ICE Q: And are you going to wash your cup before you leave?
LISA: Yeah…
ICE Q: And your butter knife?
LISA: [mumbled from room] Fuck you, I’ll butter your ASS...
ICE Q: Did you say something? [beat] Are you going to wash these?

In my next place of residence (which I shared with 5 people), I kept fairly tidy, but I was so overextended I hadn't bothered to decorate, and we had a washer and dryer in-house; my new bad habit was that I had a hard time waking up, and I had discovered the “Snooze” button on my clock radio, which was a massive annoyance to Cynthia, who shared the basement with me. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been drinking then. I passed out from SOBRIETY.

So in my last college apartment, I usually got up when the alarm went off (a new decision), but I reverted to slob again, because I lived, mercifully, with total slobs who were dedicated to LEARNING THINGS and having INTERESTING EXPERIENCES while in college, agreeing that CLEANING was not one of those interesting learning things.

Environmental Issues

In each subsequent place I lived, I consciously added a layer of adulthood: Place 1) I kept all “public” rooms tidy; Place 2) I kept the bathroom clean and kept up with my laundry; Place 3) I made my bed every morning; Place 4 (this one) I wash my dishes every morning before work and (mostly) every night before I go to bed. I have arrived. All except the "desk," a giant wood table that never manages to be pile-free for more than one day of each month. C'est le guerre!

Decorating came late to me, though even as a child I had a flair, because I was too busy and too broke to give a fuck. It was the inspiration from those first framed pieces that did it: I actually chose the fabric for my loveseat based on the burnt gold stripes that wove through it, because they matched the color of the frame of the picture I wanted to hang above it.

I'm rambling. See, this blog is actually about global warming. It’s about politics and wars and natural disasters and how we deal with them, how we take responsibility for them. You’d think that by 2012, we humans would have added layers of adulthood to the way we inhabit our built and natural environments, but I feel as if we keep devolving. And writing about decorating helped me understand my own thinking.

As further evidence of our devolution, I offer this clip, which I stumbled upon, of comedian Woody Allen hosting, apparently, his very own show, on which he had as a guest the ultimate conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr. (the difference in their names tells you a lot, Allen Konigsberg having changed his, WFB, Jr. milking his heritage for all it's worth). The two men could not disagree more on politics, but when answering polite audience questions on the subject, I was struck by their fearlessness and civility, their amazing wit and a willingness to allow discomfort to sit there for a moment (but not linger, nor fall into whining or yelling), after a particularly sturdy retort. Watch Woody Allen and William F. Buckley, Jr., from 1967:

Reframing the Arguments: Semantics and You, Voting

How do we talk to each other? It's telling. Just as former roommates shaming me into being neat and clean (while I was under yards of stress trying to be all the student I could be) caused me to be rebellious and swear a lot, it occurs to me that scientists warning people about dangers to the environment does the same thing to humans under stress. What my roommates needed me to understand is that it wasn’t about making the space “pretty” or even about keeping them happy: It was about inviting ROACHES and creating BAD SMELLS. That I could have understood.

Reframing the argument, we should look at global warming this way: The environment will be FINE. Earth will keep spinning. It’s humans who will die. People who keep screaming to protect the environment, I realized, (talking to visiting Indian friend Rina about something else entirely) have to scream about the destruction of HUMAN LIFE—for example, the increase in cancer alone should awaken people (the U.S. has among the highest rates of cancer in the world, ranked 7th:
; according to WHO, cancer incidents could rise as much as 75% by 2030:,0,4763342.story

This is prediction, of course; global warming is prediction, too: and all those predictions are coming true at far faster rates than originally predicted: disappearances of ice shelves predicted for 50 years from now have already happened, and CO2 is rising far faster, too:

All this catastrophe is the result of what WE do to our own environment—not “the environment” in the abstract, but OUR ENVIRONMENT. The HUMAN world.


Now let’s talk about Kristen Stewart’s breasts. Yummy, suckable titty. Seems she wore something see-through...where is that story? OH! And here’s another coming future bestseller! I can’t get enough of disgraced politician John Edwards!!!!!

I cracked up the other day (choked on my own vomit, more like) on the subway, reading the headline that the New York Post took the time to put on its cover, about irrelevant former presidential candidate John Edwards, lambasting him for being awful, whereas they’ve given Dick Cheney, George Bush, and other actual criminal officeholders and torturers a journalistic pass, but hey, that’s me.

Where does this kind of righteous anger come from, so often so misdirected and unceasing in its "beside-the-point"ness? By way of another example, I took a former student and her fiancé to dinner around Christmas of 2008, and as she was in the healthcare profession, I suggested, by way of making conversation, that newly-elected Barack Obama seemed to want to increase people’s access to affordable healthcare, and her eyes flashed and she looked to the side and began growling; her silent husband-to-be placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. The level of their rage was astonishing. I so badly wanted to say, “You are not allowed to be that angry. You really, really aren’t. He has not even been inaugurated, has not implemented one policy, whereas our sitting president failed to prevent a terrorist attack, did not call for an immediate investigation of the attack, got our nation into one unjustified war and put off the important one (in Afghanistan), and promoted policies that caused our banks to fail. I am allowed to be angry; YOU are not.” But instead I picked up the check.

What we need to be talking about here is proportion and reality: Humans are destroying their own life on Earth, whether from environmental shit or wars or hate crimes. Make it personal: Suppose someone dumped a truckload of rusted car parts onto your lawn. Sprayed gallons of horse piss onto your roof. Beat the living shit out of your kid because he seems gay or unique. It's like that. All over the world, through bad decisions and venal prejudices, we are destroying our own quality of life. Suppose your lights and AC and heat would never, ever work again. Suppose your kid couldn’t go to school without having his life in the balance. Every day. Could happen. I always ask the doubters, being the Liberal that I am: WHY DOES IT HAVE TO HAPPEN TO YOU, PERSONALLY, BEFORE YOU GIVE A FUCK?

And yet, in the midst of all this deep stuff, I continue to decorate. What is it about decorating? I have been obsessed with the making and remaking of my built environment ever since I was a kid. My friend Rina loves my home, and is happy to comment on it. I find this amazing considering her history. Rina is the daughter of Pakistani refugees, Hindus who had to get to India after the partition (Punjab is like Berlin), and had to leave literally everything behindescape was over and across rooftops! Talking of the Pakistani partition—Muslims vs. Hindus, running away to safety, being a refugee—we went on to the subject of how and why we humans perpetuate hatred. It can’t just be about hoarding resources, getting more stuff. We have so much in common: I mean, materialistic people are in every culture and of every faith. We all like to decorate our homes, we like nice clothes, we like delicious food, we love our families, and we all agree being sick sucks. Why are we STILL fighting reality in the year 2012, on the brink of human destruction brought on by self-inflicted climate shifts?

And here’s another question: What is the difference between love of ornament (decorating) and materialism? I do think there is a difference, like the difference between being a foodie and gluttony. I find that the people I like best decorate (granted with a lot of stuff) according to story: They have a love of the old, the new—supporting artisans—reclaiming and reusing and recycling—as needed to tell the stories of their lives in the built living space. Just so, my foodie friends eat based on a desire for a great food experience, not to “fill up.”

Decorating expresses. It's not just about piling stuff up: It's seeing beauty and wanting to have it near us. Here’s a marvelous example of the wonderful ways to live a life while recycling, reusing, and staying creative in a densely packed world of material stuff: Luna Parc, in Sussex County, NJ:

George Lightcap, Jean LeBlanc, Miss O’, Ashley “Black, No Sugar” Intveld, and Keith Loria at Luna Parc, 2011. 
All art and house and life by Ricky Boscarino

The next open house is June 22 to 24, no admission fee, and it will change your life. And it's FUN.

Redecorating Our Minds

So I’ve been thinking we need to focus not on “environmental issues” but rather “human life”—the disappearance of that—that that is what we need to rename this movement: The Human Life As We Know It Will Be the Fuck GONE Movement. I think this is connected to decorating: We shouldn’t just buy shit, but rather we should imagine who we are when we own it. How does stuff define us? How do we shape our built and natural worlds? I think this is a spiritual question.

I’d like to close with this speech by religious writer and accidental television celebrity (and ex-nun) Karen Armstrong, who explains that only by working together and sharing our stories can anything even approaching progress happen. It’s about moving beyond mere “tolerance” and into real “appreciation.” If my roommates had ever asked me why I was a slob, I could have told them. All they wanted was the place the way they wanted it. They had to put up with me, and I needed to make adjustments, but really it could have been a lot more fun, is what I’m saying. If the visitor to the home of Q and X had wondered rather than judged, she might have gotten some interesting stories rather than a cold silence. Life doesn’t have to be a choice between junkyard or Pottery Barn only, is what I’m saying. Let’s talk about living. And joyfully.

Karen Armstrong: Tolerance vs. Appreciation:

And here’s another, longer show, should you care to watch:

So that’s where my sodden brain has taken me this sunny Sunday in June. I’d love to hear from you. What has your sodden self been thinking about? And how are your rooms looking?

Love and loads of decorative kisses,
Miss O’


  1. ha, ha, have the talent of expressing my own thoughts! Get outa my brain! (Just kidding, I like you being there too.)

    A couple of observations of my own decorative motivations: I used to visualize what I would want my desk/den/office would look like after I had accomplished enough to be "mature." I wanted to have at least one artifact of each memorable experience. I wanted to be surrounded by lots of material things that would spur memories. I wanted to have VISUAL clues to where I had been, preferably successful ventures. I liked the picture of me leaning back in a leather chair smoking a cigar (yes, a cigar!) with a roll-top desk crammed with trophies and photos of me with famous people. Oh, and there's a fire place too. Even though over the years I have accumulated a lot of stuff, I could never determine if any of it showed any successful venture of mine. Was I successful enough? And cigars soon lost their allure.

    Then I went into the stage of wanting to document where I've been, you know, leave a trail of artifacts to show my life, whether or not it was successful. That didn't go too far once I had kids and realized that what was important to me rarely was of any interest to them. Who else would ever want to know my life in any detail???

    Sigh, maybe I was just wanting attention. Now I have stumbled upon the most recent motivation. I want to carefully choose things around me visually to create what I desire to be. Maybe this sounds funny, but I've come to believe that any thought that I think continuously becomes, for me, truth. And if I am true to myself, that truth takes on a life bigger than just me. This is a little "new-age y" but stay with me a bit longer. So, in the same way, if I surround myself with objects that represent what I wish the world to be or what I wish to see in myself, who's to say that this does not happen? I have to admit that I still do have vestiges of these previous motivations in my house. I am trying to sort through them and discard them. O.K., so I'll just keep a FEW of them! (Maybe grandchildren will be interested?)

    But I am happy to say that I am tackling the clean-out of my house by emptying a room and re-painting and putting back in the room only that which brings me pleasure. You are still right about the fact that every thing in the room has a story, but now that story might not be necessarily of the past, but maybe of the future. What do ya think? Are you following me here? Maybe I can point to something and say "that's what our world will become" or "won't it be nice when we see this everywhere?"

    After having said all this, the feng shui people will just say that we're just changing the energy in our accident if not by design.

    Well, never in my imagination did I think I could write so much about such an everyday subject as decoration of our space. Thanks for the excuse to do so by your post. I do, so enjoy, your posts. Keep calm and carry on!

    Melinda, New Friend

  2. Hi, Melinda! YES--stories of the future! Why not? Our built space reflects us, is what I mean, so going with the "what do we want to be," I think "solar panels" on all those new buildings would say a LOT about who we, as humans, want to be, which is to say ALIVE for a few more years.
    I love that you were a cigar smoker. I used to smoke a pipe--and still do, maybe once a year. Thinking about this more, I also know that a lot of my own space is more who I WAS and does not always reflect who I've BECOME, but I can't afford me. Not right now.
    Thanks for the comment, the conversation, and thanks, too, for reading me at all! XO

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