There’s no place like house

The Thinker by Rodin

Our six-month home improvement adventure is finally nearing a close. Our punch list: it’s nearly punched out. There are no large and annoying tasks to put our house on the market remaining. Some of those that do remain simply cannot be done right now. Most likely though the five inches of snow on the ground will melt and temperatures will stay reliably above freezing before our house lists in two weeks. When it does then I will pound those stakes into the ground to make the edging along our garden look right again. And we will pull the wild onion shoots from the garden as well. Right now though these imperfections are covered, quite literally! Two weeks from tomorrow, our house will get listed and a new set of hassles will start.

Inside our house though we are getting down to things that probably don’t matter. My touch up painting in the laundry room is pretty obvious. I’d like to repaint the walls, but not sure I want to buy yet another gallon of paint to make it look seamless. I am thoroughly sick of painting. I am sick of painting and all the crap that goes with it: caulking, patching, priming, masking, sanding, positioning drop clothes, taking knobs out of doors, and switch plates off the walls and putting them back in again. I am sick of cleaning up afterward and trying to get my paintbrushes clean yet again. It is more than painting, of course. To name just a few, I am also sick of constantly vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, trashing and rushing to and from the local Lowes.

There is still stuff that needs to be moved around or put away to make our stager happy, but for the most part that work is done. We are also loath to remove some stuff until the last possible moment, such as most of the items on our kitchen counter. If you encounter a kitchen counter minus most appliances, it’s a good sign that the house is about to go on the market. The assumed buyer wants to imagine her stuff on those counters, which is not your ugly toaster or your very used electric can opener. So we must make it look like no one actually uses our kitchen instead.

All this is really for the photographer. Twenty-one years ago when we bought this house, there was no World Wide Web. If you were lucky you had a brochure of the house to look at first that you got at your broker’s office. Instead, you generally depended on cryptic house descriptions that realtors gave you. They came from printouts off dot-matrix printers in the realty office. You plotted the actual locations of these houses using a local atlas so you could get some idea if the house was in a neighborhood that would work for you. Now your house is mostly sold online, thanks to your stager who makes each room unrecognizable to you but mostly thanks to the photographer, who has a unique assortment of extremely wide angle lenses that can make a bungalow look like a mansion. It will all be brightly lit, using Photoshop if necessary. The fancier photographers might use panoramic cameras with high-resolution detail so strangers can get 360-degree sweeps of your bedroom. That’s when you’ll be glad the stager noticed the bottle of lube on the bedstead and had you put it away in that special drawer with your many whips, frottages, restraints and adult DVDs.

Our house has been ruthlessly decluttered. We’ve given away literally thousands of dollars of stuff, mostly to Goodwill, mainly because we don’t want to invest the energy to sell it. Freecycle has been another godsend. It’s amazing what people will take when you advertise it for free. My wife posted on Freecycle four bottles of a sports drink she’ll never finish. Some slinky Asian American woman stopped by a few hours later in her gym clothes to pick them up; I guess she needed some electrolytes for her workout. My wife can give away practically anything, no matter how trashy I think it is, with a creative posting on Freecycle. A lot of stuff gets claimed in minutes. An occasional item will languish, but a reposting will usually get rid of it. Some stuff though is not even fit to give away. One (an outdoor table) literally fell apart as I helped to put it in a guy’s truck. He was nice enough about it and helped me haul it to the curb.

It took us twenty-one years but finally our house is clean and fit for human habitation. It’s just too bad that actual human beings don’t live in houses like ours. That’s because you have to be retired for six months with little else to do but fetishly turn the real into the surreal using lots of disposable cash to reach this level of crazy perfection. Real people fill their house with stuff (most of it junk, actually). Real people don’t vacuum daily, and they leave dishes in the sink, sometimes for days at a time. Real people (and we are guilty here) leave baskets of clean laundry lying around until some amorphous day in the future when we decide to fold them, by which time half of it has been picked out, worn and is back in the dirty clothes basket. Real people don’t scrub their sinks after each use, so it will look shiny and unused if some potential buyer comes by. I leave out rich people because they aren’t real IMHO. If you want to get some sense of what it takes to live 24/7 in a clean and well-ordered house, watch the staff in Downton Abbey. No one else has the time, except when buyers are house hunting. Then they expect to see a surreal HGTV-like house; a house that will never again appear once the first moving box is plopped down on the living room floor.

What the next owner of our house won’t notice or give any thought to is how much time, money, fretting and brute labor went into our house while we owned it. Developments like ours were sprouting like weeds in the mid 1980s, and construction standards were somewhat sloppy. Our house had many defects, stuff you wonder how any county home inspector could approve. Among the ones we encountered were drywall ceilings on our porch and the deck literally nailed into our sliding. We fixed these and many other defects, not to mention did a lot of remodeling, painting and repainting, replacing appliances, and fussing about dandelions and drainage in the backyard. We spent huge amounts of money, well over $100,000 according to my records, just to keep our house functional.

For the new buyer it all that comes free. Once they own it and entropy reasserts itself they will discover the real cost of home ownership. It’s something that we will escape, at least for a time, when we move into our newly constructed house in Massachusetts this summer. Moreover, the condo association will have to fix problems with the exterior of our house.

Still, despite the hassle and expense of being homeowers, with a mortgage that is still not completely paid off, I’m going to miss this home of ours, which BTW is now mostly just a house. I know that even after the messiness of this gargantuan change in our lives that I will often feel nostalgic for this place I still call home.

Close to home

The Thinker by Rodin

Life is conspiring to keep me close to home this year. It seems a bit weird. Between vacations, mini vacations and business trips, it’s rare to go more than a couple of months without spending a few nights at least a few hundred miles from home. Not this year, at least so far. Here it is April already and I haven’t even ventured across the Potomac River to Maryland to see my father. No jumping from Eastern Time to some western time zone, unless you count the move to daylight savings time. This is due in part to apathy but mostly due to cutbacks in government travel. The sequestration started to squeeze long before it went into effect. We could all see it coming. One of the first management dictates was no traveling anywhere, at least not without special high-level authorization. So no snaking through the security lines at Washington Dulles with the business laptop in my carry on bag. Lots of extra conference calls and Webex sessions instead, trying to do the same work but just a lot less productively. It’s all about being squeezed.

My wife (who never goes anywhere on business) is actually traveling more than me this year. She has had one trip to Boston, and another one to Las Vegas in July, both for pleasure. Looking at my own plans for travel, the closest I have come to scheduling a trip will be a June trip to Louisville, Kentucky. It won’t be for business, but for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I went four years ago and had a great and spiritually uplifting time. It seemed time to do it again. I plan to drive.

So it is close to home for me this year, at least unless plans change. What I am discovering is that while home is a place where you spend so much time, you tend to largely ignore it. It’s there but you don’t see it. Instead, you spend your time either at home or just around it involved in dull chores like trimming the hedges. Or you spend it going to the same places over and over again: work, the gas station, the supermarket, the superstore and maybe once a month the local Silver Diner for breakfast. All those places in between, although I have lived in my neighborhood nearly twenty years, are rarely if ever visited.

The best way to experience where you live is to ditch the carbon-emitting automobile. Feet or a bicycle are preferred. Neighborhoods need to be encountered slowly, not passed through. So it is here in Oak Hill, a suburban oasis, but a place where few go anywhere without an automobile. Maybe that’s why we are overweight. So best to put on the walking shoes and amble our local neighborhoods instead. Sometimes I find I prefer to listen a podcast while I walk. A lot of the time I prefer to look, listen and smell. There is much to take in. The wind rustling through the trees. A cluster of mosquitos captured in the sunlight above the creek. The rustle of a squirrel in the underbrush. Occasionally you see the unexpected. The other day along a path by our local creek I watched three deer moving rapidly through the woods. Often I am conscious of my own shoes hitting the pavement, or my elevated breath moving in and out of my lungs. There is the occasional squeal of a child in a backyard playground, or the soft crunch of a car coming down on its shock absorbers as it pulls into a driveway. Depending on the time of year I may feel the numbness of cold air on my throat (forgot the scarf) or sweat on my forehead and under my armpits. Mostly while outside you get the intense feeling of the life that is all around you, and of the connection of everything in your environment. It is curious we have houses where except for a cat or a plant we deliberately seal nature out.

This neighborhood called Oak Hill is home but at least for me it doesn’t quite feel like home. Home still feels like Endwell, New York, where I spent my youth. I may have lived twice as long in this house as I did in Endwell, but my house feels transient. It’s a way station to my next station in life, which probably is not back in Endwell, but someplace else, a retirement villa around Boston perhaps. This may come from simply living in Northern Virginia. It is constantly changing and growing and thus it feels more transient than permanent.

I really should not feel that way. Where I live has few downsides (hot summers and traffic are about it) but lots of plus sides. It has lots of ethnicities, great and varied restaurants, culture, arts, entertainment, theater, world-class newspapers and more educated people per square mile than most other places on the planet. This area has kept me engaged and employed for more than thirty years. This area should be home to me. It should be where I want to spend the rest of my life.

And yet I know I will be leaving. I don’t know when and I don’t know why, but I am just a long-term visitor. I still think of Endwell as my home, but the more I see the place as an adult the less I want to live there again. It’s more the idea of Endwell than the actual place that attracts me to it. It was a place where I felt happy and have good memories. My real home may be my next home, or the one after that. Or maybe I am just a gypsy and that’s why I really don’t mind traveling regularly. Perhaps home is not a place, but a state of mind.