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February 15, 2002


Not for Sale: Gazebo w/Writer Fully Attached


Marty Katz for The New York Times
WRITER IN WINTER The home office that is used all year long spring, summer, fall and even winter.

BETHESDA, Md. -- MY wife and 10-year-old daughter mock me from the breakfast-room window. They think I am ridiculous, sitting out in the backyard gazebo in ski pants, rag-wool hat and fleece-lined gloves, trying to write a novel longhand in the midwinter cold. Wouldn't I be more comfortable inside, they ask. After all, don't I have a perfectly pleasant room of my own in the basement, fully equipped with wall-to-wall carpeting, two computers and forced-air heat?

They just don't understand. Having their own off-site workplaces (a downtown office and a fifth-grade classroom), they can't comprehend my obsession with the gazebo. To them the little octagonal structure is just a novelty, a screened-in rec room for summer nights when the mosquitoes get pesky. But to me the gazebo is a year-round necessity the one place I can work away from the domestic distractions of home, without ever leaving the premises.

Writers, like many who work and live in the same place, are plagued by the undefined borders between our professional and personal lives. People assume that, since we are at home, we are available to them in ways that others those with real jobs in real offices are not. Our workdays, therefore, are ripe for interruption, hostage to those who want to solicit donations, sell long-distance service or save souls from damnation. This explains why I am unswervingly hostile to telemarketers and door-to-door evangelists. It also explains why I write novels in my gazebo in 30-degree weather.

My gazebo contains neither doorbell nor telephone. It does contain a lamp, a ceiling fan and a clock that tends to freeze up in winter. More important, it houses two honey-colored wicker armchairs with plump maroon cushions in which I can sit and work. Yes, there's an electrical outlet for my laptop, but in recent months, I've stopped bringing it to the gazebo. Having a computer there makes it feel too much like that other place, that place of e-mails and telephone calls and compulsive online portfolio-checking, that place I call Home.

My gazebo is unlike a porch or a quiet corner of the neighborhood Starbucks. It's a wonderful hybrid, somewhere between inside and outside, shelter and exposure, civilization and wild nature (well, as wild as Bethesda gets). This ambiguity is what I like best, though the gazebo can be confusing to others, including the odd cardinal who, thinking it a flyway from one part of the yard to another, occasionally stuns itself against the screens. In my more grandiose moments, I like to think of the gazebo as a place uniquely conducive to the making of art, balancing, on the one hand, the Romantic impulse toward communion with raw nature and, on the other, the Classical ideals of detachment and aesthetic distance. (It's also a good place to smoke a cheap cigar my cure for writer's block without stinking up the house.)

Gazebos, of course, are not meant to be used as workplaces. They are places of leisure, intended to embrace a garden view. Although mine does offer a comely vista of gently sloping lawn, the landscapes I'm usually focused on are interior. True, working in the gazebo does not make me entirely immune to interruption, particularly from the squabbling of squirrels (who, I have discovered, lead lives of remarkable intensity). But such disruptions are a small price to pay and besides, squirrels are a lot easier to scare away than FedEx delivery people.

I would love to have a meaningful story to tell about how I built the gazebo from scratch, creating an ideal and idiosyncratic space for myself with the honest labor of my own hands. But, alas, I don't. In fact, I didn't even have the thing installed ready-made; it came with our house as part of the purchase deal. But serendipity often rushes in where conscious design fears to tread. And so I have found my perfect writing room in a prefab gazebo my sanctuary, my own private dacha of the soul.

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