Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The case of the missing gay gene

Among the many stereotypes about gay men, a common one is that we all have fahbulously good taste, particularly in interior design. It's in the genes. It comes naturally.

When Stew mentioned to his brother on the phone that we might be hiring an interior designer he heard his sister-in-law jokingly shouting in the background, "You mean two gay guys don't know how to decorate a house??"

Indeed if you watch Home and Garden TV--we've tried to but can't take more than 10 minutes at a time--all the interior designers seem to be either women or gay men. And for my money, a lot of the stuff they come up with--maybe because of time constraints--is pretty cheesy. One show is called "Design on a Dime," and the results often look like they are worth about that much.

Some of our gay friends seem to be blessed with the gay decorating gene. Two guys from Chicago who moved to San Miguel around the same time we did, bought a house, added rooms here, combined some there, converted the garage into something else, knocked down walls, redid the backyard to include a small pool and must have bought what to us seems like several truckloads of furniture, mirrors, pictures and doodads. We hear the remodeling and redecorating proceeded with military precision and self-assuredness. The results are unquestionably beautiful.

A few weeks ago their home was selected for the weekly San Miguel Home and Garden Tour, a walk-through of houses deemed to rank high enough on the fahbulosity scale. (Coincidentally, many of them also are for sale and the tour is one more marketing ploy.)

That is not the case with Stew and me. If in fact gay men carry some sort of interior-design gene in their DNA, we may be deficient. Our previous homes in Chicago were very attractive and most of all comfortable, or so we were told, though Architectural Digest never came knocking at our door to do a spread.

As much as Stew and I labored over the mechanical aspects of the house--plumbing, wiring, rainwater catchment, sun exposure, insulation, etc.--we don't have a clue what to do with the interior.

For us the hard part is the furniture, drapes and other details. We own only scraps of furniture. Most of the pieces we brought from Chicago, at considerable cost, probably should have stayed there. We've gotten rid of most them and are down to the most minimalist minimalism. Check out the pictures above.

Around the dining room we have four green outdoor plastic chairs, the rugs are threadbare, one with holes created when our dog Lucy had one of her panic attacks. The cats have been exercising their claws on a 10-year-old Lazy Boy that remains just about the most comfortable seating in the house. The bed is OK, particularly the Tempu-Pedic mattress.

Other than an Eames chair, a Eileen Gray table, a really funky architect flat file converted into a coffee table and two Aeron office chairs, we really own no furniture of any great value. Maybe we can also keep the oak library table that now serves as a desk.

So about six months ago we decided to hire an interior designer. The first guy we tried to work with was straight, though I don't think that was his fatal flaw. His fees definitely were a problem, especially when he charged us for breakfast meetings and other random missions. We added it up mentally and figured that at rate it would cost us $20,000 before we even got out of the kitchen. He was talented, though.

The second audition was with a flamboyantly gay interior designer whose house in San Miguel was nothing if not stunning. Color combinations unimaginable to most mere mortals, and oversized art and wall hangings that hit your eyes at every turn. The guy's imagination was incredible plus he was a very good photographer. But his house reminded us of a production of "Turandot": Something that triggers an initial "WOW!", followed shortly by a "But Geezus, I wouldn't want to live here!"

He also seemed to be the antithesis of "Design on a Dime." From the sounds of our conversation, he seemed to work instead in increments of a thousand dollars punctuated with many shopping trips to Mexico City.

Part of our problem is that during our time in San Miguel our tastes have evolved to the point that we can't really visualize what we want any more. As is the case with many gringo expats, we were once enthralled by the so-called San Miguel Style, a heavy, Neo-Medieval, colonial type of decor.

At the hands of experts, the San Miguel Style can work. At the hands of gringo amateurs, though, it has turned into an industry of cliches: Cathedral-size candlesticks, two-ton dining room tables, enormous wrought-iron chandeliers, crucifixes and altars to unknown saints, lots of kitschy folk art and pictures of Frida Kahlo. Yes, poor Frida continues to suffer a daily death by a thousand reproductions on tee shirts, shopping bags, paintings, plates, napkins, flower pots and what-have-you's all over town.

Though can't visualize exactly what we want, Stew and I seem to have a clearer idea of what we don't want. We'd like light-filled rooms and functional furniture, not overstuffed colonial sofas and chairs. We'd like Mexican colors and motifs without the trite folkloric rigmarole. Most of all, we want an original, interesting look.

We also want it to be homey and comfortable. The home of Billie and Ned, a couple from Texas, represents that ideal.

Following the Chinese opera set designer we talked to a very pleasant woman at a local furniture store. She seemed eager but wedded to the furniture and styles sold at the store where she worked. Understandable, except the store specialized in the San Miguel Style, which we had decided was not our thing.

Ultimately we settled on Anne, a San Francisco designer who came to San Miguel about five years ago. We visited her house, which was large but not intimidating and artsy but not impractical, despite the fact that it's reportedly on the market for $1 million-plus.

So far what we like most about her is that she tries to accommodate our tastes and lifestyle, which includes two dogs and three cats. She also seems to respect the fact we're not on a movie star's budget.

We've started by buying two area rugs (shipped from the U.S.), two leather recliners and four dining room chairs (to be followed by two more). We've also ordered two wrought iron (but somewhat contemporary) chandeliers for the big living/dining room. Still to come are designs for some shelves and a large media cabinet.

When it's all done we'll give Anne some credit--but without totally debunking the myth of the gay decorating gene. We still want people to walk away muttering, "That's a fahbulous house, but what else do you expect from two gay guys?"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Home alone

My Cuban relatives in Miami informed me several weeks ago that the weather had been so cold there--an overnight low of 37! the orange trees froze!--that some people didn't go to work. It just wasn't safe.

We're retired and have nowhere special to go, least of all to work, so Stew and I stayed home and watched our new house do battle with record winds, cold and rain. I confess it was scary at times, most particularly at night, with windows and skylights rattling nervously, the cold air whistling through every crack it could find and water sneaking in places sometimes seemingly in defiance of the laws of gravity.

Stew and I realized that for all our fantasizing about living in the country and off-grid, we'd never experienced it first-hand. In our neighborhood in Chicago, near Wrigley Field, three flats stand so close to one another you can practically hear the neighbors cooing or throwing the china at each other. Our electricity came from a pole outside the garage with a huge transformer that buzzed all day long. It blew up once but the utility truck was there within a few hours with a new unit. Indeed, all manner of city services came to our door either underground, overhead or on wheels. No problema, except perhaps for the $13,000-a-year property tax bill from the city and the monthly bundle of utility bills.

Now our closest neighbor is about a mile away, reachable only by dirt roads that under the constant rainfall turned into soupy, slippery mud. In the middle of the weeklong rains, a friend came to check on land for sale nearby (huh?) and her Jeep Liberty got hopelessly stuck the mud where it stayed for several days, the swirling water from a flooded arroyo rushing past the front bumper. A tow truck driver looked at the Jeep from a distance, muttered a "No way José" and went away. Constant rain also undermined the pavement in parts of the main road a mile away and left it with so many potholes it looks as if it was hit by a carpet bombing raid.

If something breaks, sputters, floods or short circuits there isn't any electric or phone company, or streets and sanitation department, to call for assistance. After the third day of impenetrable gloominess the solar electric system said "hasta la vista" and we developed a close relationship with the gas generator. No surprise there. Solar energy requires sun.

We felt lonely and vulnerable. So this is living "off the grid"? Is that something like "off your rocker"?

Before we're written off as nervous nellies, let me clarify that the weather for the past six weeks was borderline bizarre and tested every component of the new house, from rain collectors to window weatherseals. From what we've read, we've been at the southern fringe of huge weather disturbances that have affected most of North America. It was too cold to blame it on global warming, so some blame it on climate change.

Typically this time of the year San Miguel gets only a fraction of an inch of rain, if anything at all, and though occasionally overnight temperatures can drop to freezing, the weather report is sunny and dry, with noontime temperatures in the 70s. Day after day. The most bothersome factor may be winds that create small dust devils that hop two or three times past the prickly pear cacti before vanishing. Dust somehow sneaks inside the houses no matter how well sealed they are.

Total annual rainfall averages about 22 inches, usually from June through August. As of mid-February we had received about 10 inches not so much in angry downpours but drizzling that went on for days, accompanied by winds and temperatures never getting above the 40s or low 50s.

Our prized landscape views, especially the distant mountains, shrunk to 30 feet around the house, as clouds descended to ground level. At night the infinite views of starry skies--the billions and billions of stars that astronomer Carl Sagan supposedly used to talk about--vanished behind an impenetrable inky cover that seemed to hover just above the roof.

Confronted with such inclemency, our five animals opted for the most sensible solution: comatose naps except to eat and go to the bathroom. Ziggy and Paco, our two Chicago cats, spent most of the time on the bed nervously huddled with their heads together, sometimes with their front paws wrapped around each other's necks for added reassurance. The other three animals, a 60-lb. Labrador-ish mutt named Lucy, a smaller mutt named Gladys and a Mexican cat named Fifo, arranged themselves in a circle, nose-to-tail, on a pillow normally just big enough for Lucy. Ah yes, the pillow was in front of one of the heaters.

You do what you gotta do. For Stew and I, it was constant fussing about what might be happening to the house. In fact, except of the lack of solar hot water and electricity, nothing much did except for new-construction glitches that will take time to track down.

The space heaters in the house barely kept up with the breezes coming in under the doors, despite our recently installed rubber door sweeps and other weather stripping. Stew climbed on the roof to seal the openings intentionally left on the skylights, supposedly to facilitate ventilation during the summer. The ceramic tile floors didn't help either with keeping the place warm.

Windows leaked in the most unexpected places, depending on which way the wind was blowing. During brief sunny respites we had some windows caulked again, but the drips just moved somewhere else. Leaks seem to be a built-in feature of San Miguel houses. Two friends tried to comfort us by saying it took them three years to fix all the leaks at their place. "It takes a while," Ron counseled. A mysterious leak developed in the cellar storage under the kitchen, coming in along the bottom of one of the walls, probably 12 feet below ground level.

Outside, most of our flood- and erosion-prevention measures (the house sits atop of a small hill) seemed to work. A winding swale put in by the architect turned into a small creek shooing the water away from the house. The low stone terraces built around the planters seemed to keep the water and mud in place. On the other side, where I have yet to put up the terraces, dirt and gravel washed downhill.

The 130,000-liter rainwater cistern filled up to the brim, several months ahead of schedule.

Unable to wait until the ground had properly dried (huh?) I rented a backhoe and driver to haul some of the remaining rocks and construction debris. The machine promptly got stuck in the mud and the driver issued his own "No way José!" and went away. Most of the debris is still here but now is criss-crossed by a pattern of backhoe ruts in the ground.

Our distant farming neighbors downhill had a tougher time. The normally dry arroyos flooded and fed a reservoir that threatened to swallow the farmhouse. Most of the fields, slowly cultivated with horse-drawn plows last fall, were swamped. I don't know if that's good or bad news for the next harvest.

Yet during the first dry day we noticed the reservoir had receded along with most of the flooding. A closer look gave the answer. Part of a small dam on the far side had given way and presumably dumped part of its load water downstream to God-knows-where. If anyone lived in that direction, they must have been in serious trouble.

But for all these problems good omens came soon enough after the rains stopped. Our land has developed a faint green fuzz. Tall roadside weeds called jarrillas are covered with bright yellow flowers. Thistles and other insolent weeds are popping up right next to the stolid prickly pears and barrel cacti. Our new orange tree is covered with flowers.

Most noticeably, near the reservoir there's a neat plot of vivid green, probably alfalfa, amid all the brown land. That landscape now looks like a painting-by-the-numbers canvas, with only one square filled in.

A shipment of seeds is on its way from Burpee back in the States. Felix the gardener and his brother Juan are building two raised beds out of field stones to receive the seeds.

A three-compartment compost pile, also built out of stone, has received the first shipment of kitchen scraps. Lucy sniffed it and liked it so much she rolled around in it deliriously we'd like to think in celebration of the imminent spring and warmer weather.