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Opinion

Do granite countertops mask our emptiness?

My hunch is that we're fixated on perfecting our home interiors because we don't want to work on ourselves.

By Jennifer Moses / June 11, 2008



Baton Rouge, LA.

Like tens of thousands of other Americans, my husband and I are in the rather uncomfortable position of owning two houses. And not because we have a weekend house, either. Rather, my husband took a new job and we're moving – specifically from Baton Rouge, La., to Montclair, N.J. – and though our home in Baton Rouge is historic, old, and airy, with a perennially blooming flower garden and two giant live oak trees out back, 80-year-old wooden floors, and high ceilings and two staircases and an enormous eat-in kitchen, it hasn't sold.

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Our real estate agent tells us that the problem is two-fold. First, the bathrooms haven't been updated since the '90s. Second, the kitchen doesn't have slate counters.

She also concedes that the economy isn't as robust as it could be – and even if it were, she says, young people want all the latest.

But, really, do counters matter that much to people? Could this obsession with home improvement represent some deeper emptiness within us?

I am not, of course, unbiased in all this, as I happen to think that our Baton Rouge home is about as to-die-for as they come. But our agent is right about the kitchen and the baths. They do not sport any of the kind of up-to-date ultra-in interior accoutrements now in high demand. Things like marble countertops and glassed-in cabinets; Sub-Zero refrigerators and built-in wine coolers; "Tuscan farmhouse" distressed-wood built-ins and antiqued pressed-tin ceilings and restored cast-iron claw-footed bathtubs and Tiffany-inspired wall sconces and recessed lighting and ecofriendly designer closets and natural stone toilets and kitchen drawers outfitted with built-in molded cutlery holders.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating – but not by much. Also: I myself am hardly immune to drooling over the pages of everything from Metropolitan Home to Southern Living. Even so, you have to wonder when you hear stories like the one our other broker, the one who sold us our new house in New Jersey, told us. She said that though she loves her own home, she's been too busy to make upgrades. Specifically, her kitchen lacks an "island." One of her co-workers, a woman in her early 30s, recently turned to her and gasped: " How can you live without an island? How can you even stand it?"

"They can't so much as imagine not owning all the swank stuff," our New Jersey broker said. "What can I say?"

As far as I'm concerned, there's plenty to say. First, where does all the money come from? Really, it's a mystery: most people I know, at least in Baton Rouge, consider themselves fortunate if they can keep up with both their house and car payments. Second, the world is in a terrible shape – where aren't people starving to death or being shot at? – and it strikes me that just perhaps the money that we spend on, for example, all-marble entrance halls just might be better spent feeding orphans. If I'm being judgmental or moralistic, so be it. And though I embrace the idea that homemaking is a noble pursuit that can, as a bonus, be fun and creative, when it comes to interior entitlement, I have to put the following question: What gives?

My own hunch is that the current explosion in home obsession is actually a displacement from the interior life that human beings were once encouraged to live, back when people largely believed in the existence of what they called the "soul." In other words, the more we ignore our spiritual interior, the more we strive to compensate with lavish, lush home interiors. Our homes – our dwelling-places, made of brick and wood and cross-beams and poured concrete and glass and tubing and wiring and nails – are getting the love and attention, while the inner self is left to languish, suffering greater and greater emptiness, which its keepers try to plug with yet more stuff.

It doesn't work, though – I know because I've tried it.

On the other hand, they went gaga at Versailles, too – and in other nifty places as well, like Windsor Castle and the Taj Mahal, not to mention Edith Wharton's beloved home, The Mount, in the Berkshires, and the various tarted-up-to-the-max "cottages" at Newport. After a certain age, real estate – and the trimmings that go with it – is the great national aphrodisiac. It may not be love, but obsession has its rewards too.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to decide whether to paint my new powder room pale peach or soft peach petal.

Jennifer Moses, author of "Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou," has lived in Baton Rouge for the past 13 years.

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