Essay: Paul Newman, my apartment and me

If walls could talk, my dorm room last year wouldn’t have anything nice to say about my interior decorating skills. For two semesters, four seasons and countless weeks of studying, not even the slightest bit of decoration graced the white cinderblocks of my room – there were neither pennants nor posters, no pulsating multicolored lights or curling vines of ivy. I did invest in a single throw rug, though. The colors? White and gray.

The color palette didn’t get much more exciting than that. I had navy sheets, a navy comforter, a navy blanket and navy towels, all of which came packed in a navy steamer trunk. And what pop of color I did have from a few binders and color-coordinated notebooks largely stayed in the shadowy shelves of my desk. By every metric, I’d created the blandest, most boring dorm room GW, let alone District House, has ever seen.

College is a time to experiment with and explore our identities, and that extends to the place we call home in Foggy Bottom. In a residence hall, apartment or house, where and how we live says something about who we are – our spaces reflect the things we like, the miscellany that drives our passions. But I haven’t plastered my walls with copies of The Hatchet or built a shrine to sustainable urban planning. Maybe that’s because it’d violate my lease, but whatever the reason I’ve discovered that my living space doesn’t need much to feel like home – it just needs me.

I’m no ascetic, but I evidently don’t care all that much about creating a Pinterest-perfect space. My aversion to decoration is less of a principled stand for Marie Kondo-style minimalism than it is a way to make the back-to-school shopping trips as quick and painless as possible. If it’s as close to monochromatic as possible, it ends up in the shopping cart.

I know the terms “vibe” and “aesthetic” get thrown around a lot these days, but I don’t feel as though I have one of either. I’ve never aspired to create a brooding, darkly academic study or a bohemian garden of succulents. Why bother? After struggling with fitted sheets for the better part of a year, I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into stringing up fairy lights, purchasing the perfect pillow or shipping your personal effects to and from campus each year.

Granted, those fairy lights, throw pillows and personal effects, like a stuffed animal or favorite book, help make your space your own – it’s where form, function and self-expression meet. You can plump up some pillows, grab a cozy blanket and apply some peel-and-stick wallpaper, and a bed suddenly becomes a nighttime retreat instead of a humble mattress with a sheet wrapped around it.

But even if you’ve created your dream dorm room, that’s surely a lot of work to transform a space that only you, your roommates and maybe the occasional guest will see. And I’ve decided that, at least for now, it’s simply too much work to bother conveying what I like in wall decor or bedspread.

As strange as it may seem, your opinions editor doesn’t have much of an interest in artistic self-expression. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I’m living in a pre-furnished apartment this year. And with it, I’ve gotten my first true piece of decor – a picture of actor, director and philanthropist Paul Newman with his arms folded and a contemplative frown on his weathered face.

Newman’s picture is the only one I have in my entire apartment – no friends, no family, just Newman. But I don’t feel lonely, and the place I call home isn’t a sterile box. Because after having his steely-blue stare dig into the back of my head for a month, I’ve realized that no amount of pictures, whether one of Newman or dozens of the people I love, could make my apartment feel like home – only I can do that. My lack of decoration is just part of who I am. What I care about is in my head and my heart, not dangling off a Command hook or affixed with double-sided tape. That picture is a reminder that home isn’t determined by fancy furnishings or delicate decorations – it’s about you.

So I’ve made my apartment, Paul Newman and all, home. I’ve sprawled out my notebooks for class across my desk, plugged in my printer and stocked my fridge with pre-proportioned meals of sausage, peppers and pasta all under his watchful eye.

Maybe my apartment is as boring and bland as ever – it certainly pales in comparison to what you can see around campus and online. But I’ve made peace with that. It’s home, and it’s my home. There’s space to throw my backpack after a long day of classes, a desk to hammer out essays and articles into the wee hours of the morning and a bed to crash in afterward. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Your room can be a blank canvas to express who you are, but I’ve found I don’t need much to turn four walls and a roof into a home. So I’m going to leave that picture of Paul Newman up for the rest of the year – and maybe, just maybe, buy a copy for myself when I move out.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor

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