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Backstory: Wide awake - counting chips

Amazingly, there are no federal regulations governing when and where wives may ask their husbands about redecoration.

You'd think there would be. I mean, cars have to have air bags. Stepladders need safety stickers. Why not paint chips? At the least, they should carry a label - "Warning: Do Not Discuss before 9 a.m. UNDER PENALTY OF LAW."

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But no, OSHA's jurisdiction does not cover questions of room arrangement, and so, last Sunday at 7 a.m., I was defenseless when my wife lifted her head from the pillow and said brightly: "Honey, which of our rugs do you think should go in which room?"

First, some background: On these issues, my wife is no amateur. In the parlors of our old-house neighborhood, she is referred to - often in a hushed voice, with a sense of awe - as "the chair whisperer." She knows furniture (and drapes and paint and rugs), and she knows where it wants to be.

Books in our living room bookcase are arranged so that the color of their spines complements the color of surrounding woodwork. On the mantel, flowers are always placed to the right, so that the foxhound portrait over the fireplace appears to be sniffing them, as opposed to ... something else.

Thus, as you can imagine, when the which-rug-in-which-room thing came up I was pretty sure I was doomed. Groggy and desperate, I took refuge in grammar. "What's with all the 'whiches?' " I said. "It should be 'Where should our rugs go?' "

"I'm glad you asked!" she said. She bounded from bed, gleeful in anticipation of a morning of nonlinear conversation. Hot beverage and "Hi and Lois" would have to wait.

The issue, it turned out, was that she wanted to try the bedroom rug in the second-floor hall. But that meant moving the hall table ("It won't go with the rug; it's too grainy"), and the only other place the hall table could possibly fit was the dining room, but the spot where she wanted to put it was already occupied by a blanket chest, which also would have to be moved, but is so heavy that I don't really think of it as a chest, but a sort of square boulder with casters.

The heavy lifting took about 90 minutes. The verdict was immediate. "I don't like it," my wife said. She looked at the just-moved rug with disdain, as if it had somehow betrayed her.

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Undoing the just-made moves took another hour-plus. And as I was winching the blanket chest back into place, my wife started poking around our inoperable dining room fireplace. She yanked at the metal plate, which has sealed the flue since, oh, 1919. A hole appeared. Decades-worth of debris began spilling out, onto the floor.

"Look," she said. "Let's open it up!"

"We can't," I said. "It's against EPA rules."

"Really?" she said. "Which ones?"

"I don't know yet," I said, "but I'll find some."

Peter Grier is a Monitor staff writer.