I was a boy with one dream and one dream only: I wanted—no, strike that, I was desperate for—a room of my own. You see, in those days I shared a room with my little brother, Jesse, and it wasn’t pretty. He was the Oscar to my Felix: messy, careless, and just a little bit sticky—exactly the way a kindergartner is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a triple Virgo: frighteningly organized and utterly meticulous—exactly the way a controlling 5th-grade neat freak is supposed to be. I wanted the laundry stacked, sorted, and put away the second it came out of the dryer, whereas my brother
lived happily with stuff tossed all over the place. The only LEGO-free zone I was able to maintain was my bed, and believe me, I made it flawlessly. Even as a 10-year-old, I remember trying to explain to my mother and stepfather how upset and frustrated a messy room made me. But they just couldn’t grasp it.
They wanted me to be playing with baseballs and frogs while I wanted to be scouring garage sales. I don’t know if my mother simply got fed up with refereeing the epic battles between Jesse and me or if it was starting to dawn on her that I just wasn’t a baseball-and-frog kind of guy, which is what I’d told her when she signed me up for T-ball. Actually, I believe the exact quote was, “I don’t like direct sunlight, I don’t like the feeling of grass under my feet, and I don’t like mosquitos, so I don’t know why you think I’m going to enjoy a summer of this!” But my parents more than made up for it in the fall, giving me the greatest present I could’ve ever imagined for my 13th birthday. Forget the savings bonds, fountain pens, and Kiddush cup that most Bar Mitzvah boys receive, my mother and stepfather announced that they would be allowing me to renovate an unfinished section of the basement—concrete floors and no drywall—and turn it into my own bedroom. Moving into a space that I could call mine and, even better, watching it gradually take shape was a major turning point for me. I was involved in every single design decision. The rest of our house may have been done in French Country, but my bedroom was going to be grays, blacks, and reds—a subterranean oasis of the urban ’80s in the dead-center of suburban Minnesota. During class, I sat staring at the clock, waiting for the afternoon bell to ring. Most kids race home to play video games or kick a soccer ball; I ran all the way from the bus stop to see if my countertops had come in, or if the guys had installed the bathroom sink yet. In a matter of months, my bedroom had gray carpet with darker gray pin dots, built-in oak furniture with satin-nickel pulls, gray laminate countertops, pale gray grass-cloth wall covering, and a gray laminate bed with red-and-white bedding. The bathroom was white tile, with gray countertops and oak cabinets with a clear stain. You know, just your basic 13-year-old kid’s space circa 1984.
Without having this design laboratory of my own, I seriously doubt I would ever have had the confidence so many years later to make sweeping design decisions (let alone have other people foot the bill for them). Over the next few years, I must have rearranged that room a thousand times. Some kids spent their allowance going to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; I spent mine on a great-looking lamp I’d found at the flea market and a ceramic bowl from a neighborhood garage sale. Friends who came for sleepovers had no idea what they were in for. I would get a thought in my head about where I wanted my bed to go or I’d become fixated on gluing something to the ceiling, and we’d get to work—sometimes for hours.
I couldn’t leave that bedroom alone. I reorganized. I reinterpreted. I reframed. I had three bookshelves and my idea of a really good time was to remove all the dust covers from my books, then put them back on, just to see how they looked. Even more thrilling, my bedroom connected to the small storage room where my stepfather kept his tools. I’d get an idea, like, maybe, hanging a canopy over my bed, and before you could say “popcorn ceiling,” I’d be up on a stepladder with a sheet, a staple gun, and a pocketful of thumbtacks. The vast majority of my teen years was spent trying to make that sheet hang from the ceiling, all the while thinking, There’s got to be a way to do this.