»  The Straggler, No. 40

February 27th, 2006

  A Room of One's Own

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Our social commentators anguish over the Demographic Crisis of the West; our economic ones, over the relentless — and, they tell us, irreversible — rise in the price of oil. I must say, both concerns seem misplaced when, walking my dog, I pass the six-bedroom, four-bathroom, three-car-garaged McMansions rising to the sky from every vacant lot around here. These middle American palaces of Versailles (or, depending on your age, temperament, and mood, Gormenghasts) seem designed for people who have several children and are blithe about the cost of home heating and air conditioning. You could in fact lose half a dozen children in one of these places, not seeing them from one week's end to the next, being left alone to toil away from dawn to dusk at earning enough money to meet the stupendous bills coming in from the fuel-oil supplier and property-tax assessor.

McMansions are, in any case, not for me. I am very happy in my cozy (or — matter of perspective again, I suppose — poky) eighty-year-old colonial. And I am happier now than I was formerly, for I now have a room of my own.

The initial impulse to this development came a year and a half ago, during the long school vacation. One of the many surprises that lie in wait when you set out to establish a family is that children get noisier as they get older. I was not ready for this. When mine were aged five and two, it seemed to me that nothing, nothing in Creation, could be noisier than a five-year-old and a two-year-old acting in concert. Now that they are thirteen and ten, I know better. The kids are also — though this one, I'll allow, I really should have foreseen — much bigger. In the rooms of a one-family 1920s colonial, they seem very big indeed. A memory from my remotest past comes to mind: an illustration in my childhood copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, of Alice, in the White Rabbit's house, having foolishly drunk a potion she found there, grown larger and larger until she has "one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney." Someone has been giving my daughter that potion.

My former den was an annex directly off, and open to, the family living-room. As a place for quiet reading and reflection, this became untenable. There was also the matter of books. As any book lover knows, books in the plural lose their solidity of substance and become a gas, filling all available space. My books soon overflowed that little annex. Henry Petroski, in The Book on the Bookshelf, recommends a ruthlessly imperialist approach to the problem:

Kitchen and pantry cabinets can be commandeered in the fight to find bookshelf space, and a family's eating habits can be changed. When the china is displaced by paper plates, there is no longer any reason why books cannot be stored in the dishwasher too …

This seemed to me too drastic, and in any case my wife expressed very strong resistance to the idea when I read the passage to her. My books began to silt up the attic, basement, and bedrooms in disorderly piles.

Then came summer vacation 2004. The largeness and noisiness of my children and their visiting friends became unignorable. I very much needed to, as Virginia Woolf says, "escape a little from the common sitting-room"; not, as in her case, to "see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality," but just for some peace and quiet. My attic offered the only possible refuge.

At that point in history, the attic was in its primeval state — bare rafters, floorboards only in the center, and a single light bulb fed by a thick pre-WW2 cable with crumbling black insulation. I planned: I envisioned: I measured. Month by month, with many pauses and distractions, I built. And last week, with only some minor painting and varnishing left to do, I moved my books in. Here they all are, easy to hand at last, on two hundred feet of bright-painted new shelving. I got a desk from Staples and an armchair from Ikea. I got a Venetian blind for the one tiny window, and strip lights, and a waste basket, and a couple of those handy wheeled printer carts that you can pile stuff on and then roll out of the way. I shut the door, and sat to gaze at the fruits of my labor.

Like the universe at large, my room bears the mark of its creator. The numerous triangular spaces where bookshelves meet roof slope are perfect repositories for my many tchtochkes. A trapdoor in the floor gives access via a ladder in our linen closet downstairs, avoiding the need to pass through my son's bedroom. All computer and desk-gadget cables are tucked away under the floorboards, emerging only from a hatch in the floor's precise center. There are two secret compartments, in case I should ever acquire any secrets. What is a personal room without secret compartments? You can't pay people to do this kind of thing for you.

There are minor failures and dissatisfactions to be noted. Looking at my ceiling, I acknowledge that I have much to learn about the taping and spackling of sheet rock. My choice of color — "citrus orange" — for the entrance door and matching window blind was probably a mistake. (Though I resist the notion, floated by a colleague, that it was motivated by unconscious partiality to the Ulster Unionist cause. I just wanted to brighten a dark place. My house's roof and outside trim, let it be noted, are green. Let it also be noted that as the Home Depot employee — sorry, "associate" — was making up the orange paint for me, I heard her mutter: "Not my favorite color …")

Now, with the merely physical work all done, there only remain the social issues. My wife has already wondered aloud whether she will ever see me again other than at mealtimes. The kids want to demonstrate the linen-closet trapdoor to their friends. And of course, my room must be shown off to all visitors. Should you drop by the Straggler's house any time soon, be ready with exclamations of awe and admiration. God knows I deserve them.