"So, how's the 'uglification' of the house coming along?" Gabe asks as he walks in the front door.
By uglification, he means that we have removed the dirty, shredding wallpaper that adorned many of our walls.
By uglification, he means that we have replaced the cracked and peeling vinyl flooring in the master bath.
And by uglification, he means that, for the first time, with the help of a design consultant, we will live in a house that doesn't look like a student apartment.
But, as Woodrow Wilson once said, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."
Danny, 11, still mourns "couchie," the dilapidated, threadbare brown corduroy sofa he knew for the first three years of his life. Jeremy, 13, wishes we still lived in our old house, where he spent the first nine years of his life. And Gabe thinks we should be painting the entire house white -- or blue.
"Look at these depressing kitchen walls," he says. "What kind of color is 'badger'? Have you ever seen a happy badger?"
"How about a happy 15-year-old?" I ask.
This home decorating project -- chalk it up to premenopausal madness, pre-bar mitzvah anxiety or post-Sept. 11 cocooning -- began last January.
Previously, it made no sense to invest emotionally and financially in our surroundings. Not with four boys who regularly punched holes in the plaster walls, treated the den couch as a mechanical bull ride and rearranged the living room furniture into an armed fortress, using every blanket and toy weapon in the house.
Previously, my husband, Larry, and I, who see eye-to-eye on sex, money, religion and child-rearing, the issues most couples fight over, couldn't choose a new paint color or silverware pattern without a highly charged battle ending in stalemate.
But now the boys are less destructive.
And now, in a capitulating and generous bow to marital harmony, Larry has given me, within a prescribed budget, full reign. "Surprise me," he said.
I admit to being style-challenged. I don't know the difference between feng shui and fen-phen, between Martha Stewart and Martha Washington and between colonial, contemporary, craftsman or counter-culture.
But, like the Supreme Court definition of pornography, I know ugly when I see it.
Like coral-colored bedroom walls.
Like an incongruously ornate living room fireplace mantel.
Like a wrought iron dining room chandelier, sporting, in the exact center, an oversized rooster.
And I know the value of professional advice.
The penchant for never completely settling in might be attributed to my being a Jew, who is not called "wandering" for nothing. From escape from Egypt to exile in Babylon to expulsion from Spain, we Jews are always in transit. Under constant threat, even to this day, of persecution or annihilation, our lives are better suited to the fragile, temporary huts of Sukkot.
This penchant might also be attributed to my being an American, a person who, on average, moves every seven years. I myself have moved 17 times, from the Midwest, to Israel, England, New England, Northern California and, finally, Southern California.
Or to my merely being a Californian who, having experienced the 1994 Northridge earthquake, learned the transient nature of material possessions as I witnessed, in a matter of 15 seconds, all of our household belongings crash to the floor. But now I want a home that serves as the center of our Jewish family, a bulwark against the outside world, a comfortable refuge. A place where the kids, as they begin to move out and establish families of their own, can return for Shabbat dinners, for seders, for Sunday barbecues.
I have no illusions that our house will ever be a showcase. Nor do I wish it. We will always have to accommodate Larry's old radios, Felix the Cat collection and Coca-Cola paraphernalia; my myriad rabbits and needlepoint projects; a shot-glass collection belonging to my oldest son, Zack; and all the boys' baseball caps and sports trophies, LEGOs and trading cards. As well as countless boxes of papers, projects and artwork, representing 49 cumulative years of school and preschool.
Plus, I have no illusions that my sons will stop leaving their shoes and balled up, inside-out socks in every room in the house. Or using the front hall as a dumping ground for their backpacks, binders and books. Or doing their homework on the living room coffee table.
Nonetheless, I think it's time for a change. After all, as I constantly remind Larry, "My next move is to the Jewish Home for the Aging."