So a Couple Walks into a Motel….

This past August we took my kids to summer camp, a six hour drive into the wilderness of upstate New York. Our plan was to spend the night at a nearby motel after we got the boys settled in, making our way home leisurely the next day with stops along the way.

When I made our reservations, the owner was quick to warn me “this is no Holiday Inn you know”. Since his frame of reference put Holiday Inn at the top of the luxury pyramid, I wondered how far down the meter I might want to adjust my expectations.

As we approached the kids’ camp, in the beautiful surroundings of the Adirondack Mountains, we kept our eye out for the motel, so we would know where it was located for our return later that day. I screeched, first with excitement and then with fear, at the sight of the motel sign in this remote area on Route 4. We slowed down, our four sets of eyes following the motel in loud silence. We craned our necks with our eyes glued to it, until we were around the bend and out of site. We all faced forward in unison, staring at the road ahead. It seemed like forever before anyone spoke. “Gee mum” said one of my kids, “it doesn’t look at all like a place where your body parts will be found in freezer bags in the creepy caretaker’s cabin.” Joe then said something about it looking like a scene from an episode of Criminal Minds. My other son, now my favorite person in the car, remained quiet. I tried to find a smile within the fear of my frozen face. “I’m sure it will be fine,” I heard myself saying. I’m not sure if I actually said that out loud or wished it in my head.

We managed to find the kids’ camp and began our drive down the camp road, which was lined with councilors cheering us into the campus grounds. Apparently they thought it would be welcoming and comforting to frightened kids and crazy mothers, to be cheered on, and put in the spotlight. Did we just cross the finish line of some race or something? The kids were understandably nervous and excited, so the cheering was quite disconcerting. If you’ve ever been unexpectedly attacked with a serenade or ambushed by a group of well-meaning people, wishing you happy birthday with a cake and a stripper, you know what I mean. It’s just plain awkward.

So here we are, tired and cranky after 6 hours in the car. And at least two of us are a little fearful of emerging from the motel the following day in one piece. And at least one kid (my current favorite) is hoping to get his mom back, plus they’re anxious about the unknown events that will unfold over the next three weeks of camp life. I took my younger son to the cabin he was assigned to. He chose his bunk with accompanying shelves that would hold all his belongings. I helped him unpack and made sure we laid claim to any extra storage shelves available. He piled his clothes onto the shelves in a big, hurried heap. I re-piled them. He made his bed with no hospital corners. I re-made it (you know, neurotic mom stuff.) I glanced around the cabin and thought how cute it could be with a reading nook and softer lighting. I started rearranging some more of his things he had dumped onto the shelves, until he cringed and mumbled “mom, it’s fine!” This cabin would soon be filled with 20 boys and 4,000 identical socks on the floor, none of them making it back to the proper owner. I needed the illusion that everything would be as clean, neat and organized for the entire three weeks, as it was when I left.

No room service or daily cleaning, no internet/cable and no down pillows. 20 roommates, a shared bathroom, and storage for only three pairs of shoes per camper….I was so incredibly grateful at that very moment that my parents never sent me to camp.

Once outside, I headed over to my other son’s cabin so I could make him suffer the same embarrassment as his brother, and so I could make sure that his cabin too, would fail to meet my requirements. No such luck. He did NOT want me to invade his space. And when confronted with this plea for privacy, and rite of passage, I couldn’t say, “I have laundry for you,” or “I need to vacuum.” My pockets were empty of any valuable emotional bribe. I had to smile and say ok. And so I did.

Will this blog ever get to anything design related? Yes. Oh yes. It will indeed.

It was time to leave the boys now. My job was done. I shopped for all the stuff they needed, packed them up, called the camp with far too many questions, and held back the tears as I said good-bye. Well they weren’t so much held back, as they were hidden behind my sunglasses and stuck in my throat. Now it was time to face the motel that I hoped would be surprisingly not so horrible.

Arriving at the motel, I tried to convince myself that it had a lot of character and it would be an adventure to stay here. (Here is where I get into design stuff). The owner greeted us as we pulled up to the office door. He gave us the key and told us that without cable, he could offer us some movies to watch after we got settled in. We parked the car in front of our door and bravely walked to our room. We opened the door and found ourselves speechless and perhaps a little startled. The owner, who was right behind us, must have thought that giving us a personal tour would make the room much more special. He guided us through the functions on the tv/vcr combo unit, circa 1997, waved his arms around with pride as he pointed out the desk chair his daughter found at a flea market, and the view of the woods outside the one small window looking into the backyard. (Is that a wood chipper I see?) The blue bathroom sink was a perfect match to the blue voile in the shelf-liner that was used as wallpaper. It did not however, match the brown of the water stains on the ceiling. I wondered if the room might look better if I left and re-entered, or shut my eyes and then reopened them. Whenever my mother would try and interest me in an unappealing article of clothing, she would tell me how much different it would look once I tried it on. Somehow the color, pattern and style would magically transform into something completely different when it went from the hanger to my body. With nothing else to cling to, I used that philosophy to try the room on, by leaving and coming back with a new attitude. So I walked down to the office to select some movies. I couldn’t decide if I should choose a bad comedy or a bad drama so I took one of each. You are only allowed to take two movies. The box had about 200. And there was only one other guest in the motel. Did I mention I was only allowed to take two movies?

I went back to the room and stood in the doorway, my eyes darting from the dim overhead light with its 25 watt bulb, to the bedding’s frayed edges, back to the overhead light and back to the bed. Joe was tired and stretched out on the polyester, maroon-ish, brown-ish bedspread from Ugly Linens Inc. Joe and I hadn’t had a private moment yet to discuss this wonderland of drab and drabber. He must have been extremely tired, to risk my seeing him in full contact with this most unromantic bed, so I wasn’t sure how much disappointment I should express. Without moving, his eyes joined mine in looking around the room, taking it all in, then looked at me and said, “I feel like we’re on the lamb.”

That was all I needed. I burst out crying. Whether it was the emotional state of dropping the kids, or the incredibly depressing setting of this room, I knew I had to leave. And without saying anything, Joe told me to get back in the car and he would take me home.

It’s not that I am above the rustic nature of a cabin. I’m a good sport and adaptable to things like that. The feeling I got from this room was an extreme version of what I talk to clients about in terms of making space feel warm, welcoming, happy and safe. And the crazy part is that it would have taken very little money to make this room completely transformed into a place that felt welcoming and quaint.

So we drove away not knowing if we would stay someplace else, or just go directly home. After three hours we stopped to look for a hotel and call it a night. We wound up at (you guessed it) a Holiday Inn. And now my expectations were so low that this dated (soon to be renovated they told me) and ordinary place seemed like a palace to me. “Oh look, white, crisp bedding and a bathroom faucet that doesn’t drip! And cable TV! And low lighting!”

Our mood is affected by our surroundings. That is why properly designed space, whether it’s an office, a spa or a store, are styled and furnished the way they are. Our settings should inspire us to relax or to be productive or to feel energized, depending on the intended function of the space we are in. If the motel owner intended for us to feel depressed, tired and creeped out, he did a magnificent job.

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