Reassembling our lives

The Thinker by Rodin

The goalposts kept moving. Finally yesterday, three weeks after the date when our house was supposed to be completed, we actually staggered across the finish line. The finish line in this case was settlement. We were fortunate to be able to move into our house on September 24, which was good because after September 30 we otherwise had been either homeless or squatters. So it goes in the nerve-wracking business of buying a new house where completion dates are purely aspirational. Settlement dates came and went but eventually the necessary signatures were collected to add our property to a master deed, which meant we could actually settle.

9:30 a.m. yesterday found us in our attorney’s office where all the documents were ready. The odd thing about this settlement was that the seller was not present. In fact, the seller’s attorney didn’t show up either. He sent his paralegal who presumably had authority to sign their documents, but he would not show up until later that afternoon. And so we spent nearly as much time chatting with our attorney and his paralegal as we did signing papers. It was the first time we had actually met him and most likely the last as well.

There were the usual bizarre forms to sign. In one we signed our names three ways, with middle initial, with middle name spelled and with middle name absent I guess so they could have some assurance our signatures on the other papers were legitimate … but how do they know this one wasn’t fake? In another we agreed that if there were a clerical error we would not sue anyone. We signed one paper claiming a homeowner’s exemption. In Massachusetts the first $500,000 of your residence can be safe from creditors, but only if you take the time to sign the right document. Whatever. By 11 a.m. we were out of there with the usual cramped fingers from signing documents. Using pen and ink is so old fashioned — hadn’t anyone ever heard of electronic signatures? Also old fashioned were the stack of checks that would go to various parties, many for overpriced legal documents of dubious significance. Ever hear of bank-to-bank transfers fellas?

Monday we finally liberated our stuff from our storage unit. No more torrential rains that left a mini mudslide in our new backyard to allow the mover to postpone delivery. No more unexpected engine and brake problems to further delay things. My wife was fed up enough to find another mover instead. This mover delivered a very full twenty foot truck full of our stuff leaving us with a new house we mostly owned (except for a $30,000 mortgage from the credit union) and at least three times the boxes from the move from our apartment.

Which leaves us at the end of our long relocation journey, except for putting away all the stuff in these boxes. The piles of boxes are quite intimidating. But at least all our stuff has arrived. So far there has been little damage of note. So kudos to JK Moving. Expensive china emerged from our boxes with no breakage. Putting items away though assumes you know where you want it to go, and that’s not always intuitive. For our new house is not the same as our old house. It has more space in general but less space in certain areas. So everything has to be puzzled through. Our strategy is tentatively place items in certain places. When all the boxes are unpacked and are on the curb for recycling then we’ll probably have to go through everything again and figure out where we really want to store them.

The other hard part is remembering where you put stuff. I waste about an hour a day opening drawers thinking I placed an item in it, but not finding it there. This requires opening other drawers and if you are lucky finding the item after a couple of attempts. The kitchen at least is now wholly unpacked and I am remembering where certain common items like silverware are located. It’s all the other stuff, like the waffle maker or the measuring cups that are hard to find.

A new house takes some getting used to. Not only are rooms in different places but like a new car it has a new house smell to it. Our wood floors still smells of recently applied polyurethane. Our unfinished basement has a weird odor that I can’t quite place. It may be the insulation hanging in the ceiling or it may be the foam insulation along the perimeter and in the crevices. Speaking of insulation, the house is so weather tight and energy efficient that the designers were aware it would lead to indoor air pollution. So there is a special ventilation stack to ensure this doesn’t happen with blowers that come on periodically. Other noises take some getting used to, such as the icemaker in the refrigerator. It’s a house so solidly constructed that at least for the moment it does not creak or groan. When fans and the icemaker are not making noise, the house is eerily silent.

Two days later at best a quarter of our boxes are unpacked. There are so many things to reassemble, such as a china cabinet and various bookcases. Furniture is tried in various locations then gets moved somewhere else, in hopes of an optimal configuration. It’s hard to know what fits best until it’s all in place and you use it for a little while. Pictures and artwork need to be placed, but where exactly? Clocks need to be hung, floor lamps need to be screwed into a stack, carpet runners need to be placed and plastic and metal shelves have to be reassembled. At some point the house starts to feel like a home. It didn’t feel much like a home to me until Monday afternoon. That’s when the large pier behind our bed arrived and was reassembled. It’s amazing it all arrived undamaged. Suddenly my bedroom looked familiar again. No longer using the guest room furniture, things were right back where they used to be, just facing west instead of east. Our bedroom at least felt like home.

The complete home feeling will probably have to wait until some time after everything is put away and all the photos and artwork are again on our walls. For our house is missing something vital: a cat or two to take possession of the place. Until I see paw prints on the windowsill, I am changing the litter box twice a week and am vacuuming cat dander off the sofas, it won’t quite feel like a home. Cats don’t like change so there’s no point in getting a cat until everything is put away. I expect a new feline or two to arrive in our lives in November.

Meanwhile there is plenty more unpacking and rearranging to do, and more weeks of feeling lost in my own home until things settle in.

Shiny and new, but feeling ephemeral

The Thinker by Rodin

Muscles hurting? Check. Sweating much of the day while I frantically move things from one place to another? Check. Feeling overwhelmed with this business of moving in general? Check. Feel like I am in real estate hell? Check, check, check.

But here we are in our new house on a prominent hill in Florence, Massachusetts with about a third of our stuff in it. The rest of it remains in a storage unit until a mover can get to it. While we are in the house, we still don’t own it due to some frustrating real estate settlement issues. I’ll have more on that in a bit. But the builder was nice enough to let us in, as they have done with other owners in the past when things were not 100% done and these snafus happened. We had to sign a “hold harmless” agreement and if we don’t settle by October 7 (it was originally October 1) we start paying rent of $100 a day.

We can be annoyed with our builder for his extended delays, something not unusual in the home construction business. But we can’t complain that they did a poor job constructing our house. The house is solidly constructed and the standards for its construction were very high throughout the whole process. We know because we had five months to watch the process. Our house sits in a 55+ community. It comes with a full but empty basement and a huge loft bigger than our old apartment. Also up there is a large adjacent storage room. The main level has a kitchen and living room of course, but we also have a sunroom in the back. The main level has two bedrooms, two baths and extra wide doors. It is highly energy efficient. We have gas heat when we need it and a gas stove too. The master bathroom includes a shower and a soaker tub, as well as two vanities. It anticipates a time when we might be aging in place and need to navigate in wheelchairs. The wood floors were not prefinished. They were installed untreated and stained three times with the stain of our choice, and lacquered twice. We have a two-car garage with the interior actually finished and painted. We have a deck made with plastic wood that will still look pristine when we are dead. We even have a sprinkler system built in that we can’t control, part of one that belongs to the whole complex. It comes on whenever the system figures our turf (landscaped in earlier this week) should be watered. The house definitely smells new and everything is pristine, clean and shiny. Of course there are some lingering issues and mistakes. They will be addressed in time.

I can’t complain about our movers. There wasn’t much in our apartment, but they emptied our apartment and placed its contents in our house in about two hours. I can’t complain about the boxes everywhere and the sheer work in putting stuff away, although I’d like to. There is much more of this to go. It will take a couple of months for our house to resemble the way we want it arranged. I should be thrilled with the new house experience and all this space but I am too exhausted to appreciate it at the moment. It’s going to take a while (and a couple of new cats) before our home really feels like one.

But I certainly can complain about our crazy settlement process, full of highs and lows much worse than any roller coaster ride you can imagine. What’s infuriating is that I did everything I could to mitigate problems and it wasn’t enough.

Settlement was supposed to be Thursday morning. We had been “preliminarily approved” the credit union told us, but the settlement papers had not arrived on Wednesday and calls to the credit union only resulted in being sent to voicemail. I had heard our house needed a final appraisal, but had not heard if it had happened. The appraiser was late filing his report and in fact it didn’t arrive until Friday, the day after settlement, and it was the preliminary appraisal. Late Friday the credit union found a problem in the appraisal that had to be corrected. Settlement was effectively delayed to some indeterminate time in the future.

Also Friday night came a major shock. The title insurance company our credit union is using requires our title to be free of exceptions and they were adamant about this. As we are technically a condominium, there must be exceptions, none of which affect the use of the property. All the other units have these exceptions and to leave them out would constitute gross malpractice by our attorney, subjecting him to legal jeopardy. If this cannot be resolved our whole mortgage may be in jeopardy. I tried to reach the credit union Friday night but while they were answering the phone, no one who could actually do anything about it was available and I was sent to – you guessed it – voicemail. So we’re living in suspended animation until Monday.

Our builder is not faultless either. Settlement did not happen principally because documents did not arrive from the builder’s attorney. He and his assistant are Jewish so of course they went off to celebrate Yom Kippur even though our settlement date was known more than a week ago. They simply let it slip and didn’t tell anyone including the builder who was clueless. The only good part of this was that the screw up allowed me to convince the builder to let us occupy our home. This was good because we had given notice on our lease and the movers were already scheduled to move us the next day.

We are feeling our way through this mess, none of it our fault. The worst-case solution seems to be to cancel the mortgage application. The mortgage amount is only $30,000. I can probably cobble cash and a personal loan to make up the difference. But of course that will take time too, and reduce our savings buffer. I’m guessing it won’t come to this.

So we wander a house customized to our specifications and wondering if it will really be ours, or if it’s all an illusion. Meanwhile we have to put stuff away and hang things on the wall and buy lots of stuff to make it livable.

And I ache. I spend much of my day in motion, lifting, stretching and moving. My calves are as hard as a rock. My shoulder muscles throb. What’s discouraging is that I was already physically fit and it still hurts. It’s too much all at once, and my aging body pushing sixty is complaining. My wife meanwhile spends much of her day in extreme pain due to chiropractic work that left the muscles attaching to her sacroiliac joint throbbing, with Percocets not quite taking care of the problem. I pick up a lot of her slack, of course. Stuff has to get done, and quickly. She needs rest, but moving households means she must move anyhow and that included cleaning up our apartment yesterday. We ache and snipe at each other.

At least we have utilities. DirecTV came yesterday and gave us a satellite dish. Comcast won’t give us Internet until next week but I was surprised to find a strong Comcast Wifi signal in the neighborhood. That’s a great relief. At least I have a tool to manage all this mess. My Internet phone won’t work with the Wifi. Otherwise everything else seems to work.

It will all settle down soon, but I fear there is more chaos ahead.

Home-ish

The Thinker by Rodin

Another quick four hundred mile commute between states. The path varies a bit each time we go. Lately I have been trading money for time. The New Jersey Turnpike is no guarantee of a quick commute but when it works it’s worth the tolls. When you travel this path frequently you look for the optimal path.

There are two major obstacles between Easthampton, Massachusetts and Herndon, Virginia. One major obstacle is New York City, where the choice is either to drive through it or drive around it. If you drive through it, you should drive through it from east to west because the pricey George Washington Bridge is free in that direction. The cost of congestion sitting on I-95 in the Bronx is borne pretty much any day and at any time. Which leaves your options either avoiding the city and New Jersey altogether or driving around it. Around it means either I-287 or our more recent discovery: the Garden State Parkway that conveniently connects to the New Jersey turnpike west of Staten Island.

Obstacle two is Washington, D.C. itself, with arguably worse traffic than New York City. If you have to arrive there at evening rush hour it is better to go from east to west too because more people live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia than the other way around. There are still inevitable slowdowns but it is less hellish.

This trip to our house settlement that spanned much of our week and that kept me from blogging was at least our last one, at least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I was glad to trade money for time. We have driven this route many times now and it is getting old. When the traffic is with you it is not too bad: six and a half hours without potty breaks with NPR stations along the whole route. But traffic can easily make it eight or ten hours or more, and there is no way to know; it’s a crapshoot. I don’t feel too bad doing 80 mph on the turnpike because plenty of others are going 85. Also, much of the turnpike is eight lanes in each direction, with four inner lanes reserved for cars-only. It’s so hard to police that the New Jersey cops have pretty much given up trying.

Still, it’s a sedentary trip and all the gear shifting (we were driving my wife’s manual car) and micro changes in speed to accommodate traffic dynamics hurt my feet. From bucolic Mount Tom in the morning to traffic soaked Reston, Virginia in the afternoon, but not to end up at our house in Herndon of 21 years. We ended up instead in a friend’s spare bedroom. Outside a Virginia spring told us we were going to miss the area. Dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The grass was a green as an Irish spring. And the temperature, at least this week, was ideal.

Also ideal were those last hours at our house before we said goodbye. Both our front trees were flowering, as were the flowers along the porch and in the main garden. The house was largely clean when the movers left. All that was left was some final sweeping and mopping of floors. Our buyers paid top dollar for our house. They deserved to walk into a house that sparkled. With almost everything outside blossoming, moving in should be a joy for them.

Last moments at our house
Last moments at our house

But for us this was an ending, not a beginning. Empty of our belongings our house looked surprisingly small, but it also felt lonely. Its future inhabitants will include a man named Rajkumar, his pregnant wife beginning her third semester and shortly after the baby arrives, her mother from India. Raj probably targeted our house for the mother in law suite in the basement, but also for its proximity to Washington Dulles airport. Years of working with Indians made me realize that they see themselves as part time inhabitants. At least once a year, sometimes more often, they jet half a world away to be with their real family, always very extended. Our modest house with the one car garage will doubtless seem palatial by Indian standards. In short, while we have departed, Raj has arrived, both figuratively and literally.

We arrived at the settlement a few minutes early to discover that they had beer in the fridge and plentiful snacks in the waiting room. I guess the writer’s cramp goes easier when you are mildly intoxicated and as long as it is just one beer, you are less likely to dispute items on the HUD-1 form. The settlement experience is much different when you are the seller. Within thirty minutes we had signed all our forms, turned over our keys and the remote controls to the garage door and a stack of manuals and had left, while an impressive stack of forms remained for Raj to sign. While settlement turned out to be the event that drew us back to Virginia, my wife had two medical appointments to keep. And there were family obligations too: a drive to Silver Spring to see my aging father and his wife, one final visit to Lake Anne in Reston to take a friend out to dinner and a six a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday to rendezvous with our daughter for breakfast. She works nights and goes to bed around 8 a.m. The trip back from breakfast had us sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along traffic clogged Route 28 in a 75-minute trip that should take twenty minutes.

Yes, Virginia traffic taxed us to the very end. It was literally taxing, as we were forced to pay $768 for a “congestion relief tax” as part of the house settlement. Doubtless the money would only cause more congestion, as 35 years had taught me that in Northern Virginia developer money talks and politicians will figure out how to accommodate all the extra traffic and people when hell freezes over. Speaking of traffic, it was stop and go much of the way from Sterling, Virginia (where my wife had an appointment with an eye doctor) to Columbia, Maryland where we spent our final night with my sister Mary.

Yesterday we did the trip all in reverse, but at least we started near Baltimore, which kept us from more hellish commuter traffic, easy to see from the solid mass of cars and trucks going south on I-95 toward Washington. The New Jersey Turnpike did not disappoint us. While we were making our journey home, $415K in settlement funds was making its way electronically into our bank account. We gave up a beautiful house with a gorgeous lawn with trees and flowers in bloom for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Easthampton. But at least we were debt free for the first time in more than thirty years.

Back in Easthampton four days later, our apartment did not feel like home to me, but home it will be for a few more months. Our real home is under construction in nearby Florence. It will be built almost entirely from cash from our settlement. While we have yet to actually purchase and occupy the property, in a way we are already part of our neighborhood to be. Sunday we attended services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and we almost immediately introduced to three people from our new neighborhood. We’re already booked to attend a party there later this month, and my wife has been invited to join their book club. Nearly everyday we pick up our mail from their mail kiosk, and our days are often spent with vendors nailing down the details of this new home to be.

So we are home-ish. I am wrung out from the last eight months, but with most of the hassle and work of relocation behind us I now have an opportunity to begin to recharge now and ponder what new adventures await us.

Life on Dartmouth Street

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s a strange thing these days to see children at play. At least in Northern Virginia where I used to live, to the extent children play, it is at structured play. It is managed play. It is soccer league, or Little League, or basketball or for the girls perhaps 4-H or Girl Scouts. If mom or dad can’t attend practice, the nanny is there with a wary eye and taking notes.

They haven’t gotten the message here in Easthampton, Massachusetts that kids, even kids in their single digits, shouldn’t be allowed outside basically unsupervised just to play and roam. But play and roam they do here on Dartmouth Street, and in particular they play just outside the small two-bedroom apartment we now call our temporary home. No smartphones to distract them; they just want to be kids. Dartmouth Street is at best an irregularly traveled street, with large houses generally turned into duplexes with virtually non-existent lawns that hug the sidewalk. They are clearly rentals as of course is our building. There are lots of these houses, but most of them are rented and most suffer from somewhat deferred maintenance. They were built in a city that can trace its incorporation to 1785, and when such things as homeowner associations were unknown. This means gravel or buckled pavement parking lots (if there is a parking lot), bumpy roads where the potholes sometimes have potholes and curbs where chunks of the concrete may be missing. It means it’s okay for one of the renters to jack up the front end of his truck and work on it late into the night. Dartmouth Street is a neighborhood not built for show, or for improving your house’s resale value, or for fitting in with the Joneses, but for simple living. It means you rent a small apartment or duplex, your car is probably a little beat up but there is nothing particularly to be worried about. Easthampton may be old but at least it feels safe.

It’s so safe you can watch two kids (brothers?) sort of beat up each other in the middle of the road. There are no cars coming, and it’s clear there are no real body blows, but they laugh and wrestle and hoot and holler and in general are just excelling at being kids. It’s the sort of childhood I lived, when the phrase free-range kids had yet to be invented. The parents knew the neighborhood was safe and that if you were doing something really stupid one of the other parents would tell you about it. On Dartmouth Street it means squirt gun fights, yes, even in fifty-degree weather, lying on your back in the middle of the road giggling and then wrestling half-heartedly with your brother. It means kicking a ball down the street or into your brother’s groin. I am not sure where the parents are, but no one seems to care, and certainly not me.

Part of the reason no one seems to care may be that everyone here is about the same. Easthampton is not entirely white, just almost entirely. There may be a few lawyers and doctors here, but they probably live outside the city. Easthampton, and Dartmouth Street in particular is white working class. Mom is a teacher, or is bussing tables, and maybe doing both. Dad may be working at the auto body shop nearby or tending the package store around the corner. Life just sort of goes on here. No one seems to have pretensions. Pretensions are a relatively recent concept and largely unknown around here. You count your blessings for your job or jobs, you do your best, and you arise the next morning and then start the cycle over again. And if you are a kid, you are largely left to be a kid.

I’m the new Mr. Wilson in the neighborhood. Recently retired, it’s hard not to emulate my father who drew kids to him like moths to a flame, simply because everyone saw him as a wholesome, harmless and gentle man. So I smile at the boys across the yard and give another a wary stink eye when I see something that might get out of hand. I do that and I unpack.

We moved in yesterday. The morning was spent at a storage place across the Connecticut River. There me and two movers succeeded in getting all our long term storage stuff into a 10 x 20 foot storage unit, but just barely. Then the guys from JK Moving came here to Easthampton and deposited our much smaller cache here in this apartment. No complaints from me about JK Moving. They did a great job and everything went according to schedule. The weather even cooperated except for a little light rain. By three p.m. they had left and we were taking stuff out of boxes and setting up the apartment. Thank goodness for our wire cage in the basement. Some of the surplus we thought would fit in the apartment would not, so it is stored there, along with lots of boxes we will fill again in a few months.

From the outside our apartment is not much to look at. From the inside it has been gutted and rebuilt, and that includes the windows, doors and the walls. It’s all new; it’s just way too small. So my desk and our files are in the second bedroom and its closet doubles as an extra pantry and as our pharmaceutical chest. My wife’s desk is in the living room. The sofa has been replaced by a loveseat; it’s not big enough a living room for a real sofa. It takes us back to 1984, when we first started living together, and our quarters were only marginally bigger. But amazingly the technology all works. HD TV streams on our HD TV screen. Charter Communications delivers a reliable 64mbs download speed as well. I’ve moved 400 miles but the technology transition is flawless. As someone who made his living in Information Technology, this is definitely weird.

Still, our new pad is small and seeing a neighbor trying to fix his car on a gravel lot outside my bedroom window is not something I enjoy. So I’ll be content to leave Dartmouth Street in a few months for our more spacious house under construction. We drove by our house yesterday and noted that shingles went on during the day. The house is now fully enclosed. It seems like it should take a few weeks at most to finish the inside.

We are reliably informed the inside is the hard part. So many pieces have to come together, and each requires an inspection. Inspectors typically show up late. Meanwhile, we can contribute to the house building process by going through with an electrician and indicating where the wires should go. That will happen on Friday. And there will be more visits to various vendors to refine amenities like the color of our bathroom tiles and the model of our light fixtures. Our mailbox at least is already there, in a kiosk, and there was mail and a package waiting for us.

Mainly we are taking a breather today after four days of being mostly in hyperdrive. For me this means going through various papers and tying up loose ends. For my wife it means finding the local grocer and deciding if she will shop there regularly or opt for the more distant Big Y instead. It’s a day for ordering address labels and filling out forms for the DMV (it’s called a RMV around here). It means hauling my bike to the local bike shop for a tune up. When life settles down a little, I’ll be on the local bike trails regularly.

Meanwhile I am living on Dartmouth Street, eyeing the auto mechanic’s shop across the street and wondering about the Schlitz sign I saw on a building on Ferry Street. I wonder: do people still actually drink Schlitz? And are there some people that prefer it? I wonder if the roads are ever smooth around here. And I wonder if now that I am here if I will miss the crazy, traffic clogged place I used to call home.

Between states

The Thinker by Rodin

It took many more boxes. Toward the end it took a quick trip to our local Public Storage for a few extra boxes. It took many more boxes and many six packs of packaging tape. It took takeout from the local Silver Diner for breakfast on the day of the move, since our kitchen was all packed up. It took me following behind the moving crew after they emptied a room with a vacuum and/or a broom. It took a large trash bag to toss stuff into. For the moving crew, moving us out of our house took about nine hours, and it involved disassembling lots of furniture, wrapping our furniture in blankets and packing tape and moving awkward pieces of furniture down a harrowing flight of stairs. For my wife it took a trip to a retinal specialist.

There are times when I feel like I married a Calamity Jane. It happens with such regularity that I’ve come to anticipate her medical surprises at the worst possible moment. The other shoe is always ready to drop in my house, so naturally it happened on the night before we were to move four hundred miles. Cooking dinner was not an option the last night in our house, so my wife used the event as an excuse for fast food. On her way back from the Arby’s, her cornea tore, obscuring most of her vision in that eye. So for her moving day was partially spent at a retinal specialist’s office. As emergencies go this one went pretty well. She was seen right away and they did laser surgery on the spot. In two to three weeks she should be back to normal, assuming some other sort of minor emergency doesn’t happen before then.

So it was up to me to supervise the moving crew. Mostly they could be left alone while I fretted over events I could not control. Still, if you have to move yesterday turned out to be the perfect day for it. Temperatures hovered near seventy. Our trees were flowering and spreading petals on our lawn. The sun shown pleasantly through the trees and fluffy cumulus clouds adorned the sky. The doors were flung open while three white guys and a very big moving truck did their thing. Slowly the house that I inhabited for twenty one years emptied. Toward the end we were reduced to sitting in lawn chairs on our deck communicating with our smartphones. (The cable equipment had been returned to Verizon around noon.)

The red stuff went first, by which I mean boxes with red packing tape. They will go into our apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts so must come off last, thus had to go in first. The rest of it is destined for a storage unit across the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. Sometime in July or August when our house is finished, all our possessions will be reunited in Florence, Massachusetts. Eventually all the boxes will be emptied and recycled. My incessant dreams of boxes and packing tape will recede.

For now though we are playing our parts in a well planned time stream. For two nights we are inhabiting a bedroom at my sister’s house in Columbia, Maryland, about an hour away. Sunday morning will find us driving to Massachusetts in separate cars (yes, it’s okay for my wife to drive), and we will begin two nights in a hotel in Holyoke. Monday will find us at our apartment but without furniture. We need to meet the cable guy and get all the internet plumbing working. Tuesday we will meet the movers in Hadley and wait hours while they dump most of our stuff into a storage unit. Then we will follow them to Easthampton and watch them dump the rest into our apartment. We’ll also see our new house which should have a roof on, pick up the key to our mailbox, and discuss electrical connections with the builder.

By the 28th we’ll be back in Northern Virginia one last time. My wife has two doctors’ appointments, one with the retinal specialist. But mainly we will be there to settle on the purchase of our house, which means a few hours more cleaning our now empty house and hopefully meeting our daughter one morning for breakfast as well. On the 30th we’ll make one last trip back to New England, all obligations settled and home for real.

Meanwhile we are literally between states, two wayfarers trying to close one door in our lives while simultaneously opening another.

Many partings and many boxes

The Thinker by Rodin

How do you leave one life and start another? It involves lots and lots of boxes and lots and lots of money. And it involves lots of little goodbyes. And maybe it involves saying au revoir, which is not so much a forever goodbye as a temporary goodbye. Some part of me suspects I will be living in the Mid Atlantic again.

That’s not in the plan. The plan is to retire to Massachusetts. Yes, we constantly get sideways looks: you are supposed to move south when you retire. Yet my parents didn’t. They moved from Florida to Michigan. We really don’t know anyone where we will be living except for Craig and Roger. Craig is the realtor that sold us on Northampton when we spent two nights there a couple of years ago and asked to look around. And Roger is a client of mine across the Connecticut River in Amherst, who introduced us to Joe’s Cafe in Northampton where the pizza is so legendary it’s hard to get a seat.

We move in part because we can and in part as an act of love. For thirty years of marriage my wife has complained about Northern Virginia. Finally with retirement I can fulfill her wish to escape the whole area. I am dubious that the climate there will agree with her. She is very weather sensitive. Weather changes seem to trigger muscular pains, headaches and even sinus infections. Maybe there will be less of that up there, in part because the seasons are better defined. Here spring often lasts about a week then feels like summer, but then it may revert to spring for a few weeks and occasionally will even revert to winter. It’s a schizophrenic place to call home, but for however short spring turns out to be, it is beautiful. I doubt we will find such an intense spring further north.

With about a week to go until the moving van arrives, all semblance of our home is gone. Pictures are off the walls. Boxes occupy floors and stuff closets. Some boxes are still to be assembled. Most of these boxes have been used in moves before. When we put out the word that we were moving, it wasn’t hard to find people with boxes to unload. Some came off FreeCycle, but many came from friends at my church. Thanks to a general decluttering that started six months ago, boxing is straightforward. We spend a couple of hours a day at it. There actually is not much more to do. Most of the rest must wait until the very end.

Boxes must be carefully loaded, sealed and marked, for we are not moving once but twice. Most of our property will go into a storage unit. Stuff to fill out a bedroom, study and a living room will go into an apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts. We’ve come up with a system: transparent wrapping tape for the long term storage boxes, red masking tape for the short term stuff that will go into the apartment. We have a 10×20 foot storage unit reserved. So the long-term stuff will have to be unloaded into it first, then they will move the rest into our apartment. If we fill up the 10×20, there is a cage in the basement of our apartment complex that can take the overflow.

Moving has made me appreciate the value of money. It neatly solves lots of complex problems. However, it takes a pile of money to actually move, at least if you are moving four hundred miles. It’s not something you are likely to try yourself with a U-Haul. The cost of transporting, loading and unloading all our stuff will be around $5000. Money gets you a storage unit rental, and writing four figure checks in advance gets you a place to stay for a few months. The Internet also vastly simplifies the moving process. You can scope out neighborhoods and services from afar. It’s hard to remember how we did this stuff in a pre-Internet age.

Some stuff about moving remains as much of a hassle as it has always been. I can change my address electronically now with the post office, but it still takes about as much time as if I went there in person and filled out a form and it costs you $1.10 to do it online. All our various service providers need notification that you are closing or establishing services and for the most part you can’t do it online. Take Verizon, our Internet and cable provider. Their website tries to do pretty much everything online, but you can’t disconnect your service online, not that this is obvious. I looked and looked but there was no way to do it. It took some searching to figure out what I had to really do: call them on the phone, but only during regular hours. They sure don’t want to make it convenient for you to stop giving them money.

The same was true of our Washington Post subscription, the water company and many others. The sole exception was Dominion Power, where you can stop service easily online. Of course, you don’t get a human very easily when you call these providers. You get an automated telephone tree instead, and it involves listening to boring pronouncements and eventually being put into a queue. A recording sincerely tells you that they are sorry that you have to wait. So you wait and wait and hear bad music. You wish just one provider would state the truth: “Your call is not that important to us. You are being put in a queue because we are too cheap to hire sufficient human beings so that your call can be quickly answered.” Instead, they all lie saying they care when they clearly don’t. I spent one morning doing nothing but waiting for what turned out to be hours to talk to agents.

The hardest part in leaving is not being in a call queue, boxing crap or writing large checks but simply saying goodbye. It’s not that I dislike saying goodbye, but it’s that each goodbye inevitably invokes feelings of sorrow at parting and stokes feelings of regret and that you are making a big mistake. We discussed having a goodbye party, but it was one more thing that we would have to schedule and coordinate and there would be more emotions to process too. Instead, there are lots of little goodbyes. Some happened six months ago when I retired. People come by after services to shake my hand and wish me goodbye. At a board meeting last night there was card, cake and goodies for me. My covenant group will be taking us out to dinner on Monday night.

I go to places and wonder if it will be for the last time. If it is the last time, should it matter? Yesterday I went to the local BJs to pick up a few things and realized I will probably never be back inside that store, where we have been members for 25 years. There we have bought literally tons of stuff as well as emptied our checking account. There will be BJs and Costcos in Massachusetts as well; different faces but it will be largely the same experience.

I deal with all this by trying to tune it out. It is too much. As with the feelings of giving up the perks of my job when I retired, I simply have to let it go at the appropriate time. We will doubtless be back here many times. My father, sister and daughter all live in the area. It’s just that next time we will be in a hotel, or in someone’s bedroom. There will be no home to come home to, but there will be no daunting traffic to navigate either. So there is some joy as well as sorrow that will come with moving. Once all the hassle of multiple moves is over our new life is likely to be much simpler, less costly and far more convenient.

Still, the Washington region has defined roughly half of my life. It’s going to be hard to let it go. Which makes me wonder if I’ll be living here again someday. Should I lose my spouse, will I have incentive to stay in New England? Or will I like lots of aging adults simply choose to be closer to family? If so then I will be back. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, it’s time to pack another box.

Affording retirement and running the numbers

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m a bit anal about money. It probably comes from being a child of someone who lived through the Great Depression. So our retiring last year was a leap of faith. Of course being anal about money, I spent some time with our financial adviser basically to hear him tell me we could actually afford to retire. I retired, but didn’t quite believe it could last, particularly when we started spending thousands of dollars fixing up our house to sell it. The money going out far exceeded our retirement income.

April 29 is our settlement date, but will be important for another reason. On that day for the first time since at least 1981 I will be debt free. That’s because with settlement I won’t own a house anymore and thus won’t have to sweat the mortgage payment. Never mind I never technically owned it. I never got the mortgage balance to zero, although the balance is now under $20,000. With settlement the loan balance will be paid off. We expect a check for about $440,000, which will probably sit in a high yield checking account for a few months. Then it will go to purchase the next house.

We have no car loans and our home equity loan will be paid off at settlement. So we’ll be living totally debt free, assuming we don’t take out a mortgage on the next house. That’s our goal although we will probably draw from other savings to pay cash for our house to avoid a mortgage. Over the years we refinanced our current house twice, so our mortgage payment has lately been under $1200, and that includes escrow for property taxes. $1200 a month is very cheap housing in Northern Virginia, particularly since the next owner of our house is paying $505,000. Even with 20% down he will likely have a monthly mortgage payment in excess of $2500. Mortgage payments will hopefully soon becoming a distant memory for us.

No mortgage payment frees up a lot of cash, which is a good thing for many reasons. One reason is because when you are retired, you live on less money than you used to. To enjoy the same standard of living, you pretty much have to pay off your mortgage. Until recently I wasn’t confident that we could actually do it, and it has made me nervous. Now it’s becoming clear that we can actually retire without sacrificing our standard of living. More money will still go out for a while. Simply moving our stuff will cost us close to $5000. There will be settlement fees with the new house, perhaps a couple of thousand dollars. And there will be one time costs with moving into a new house, which mostly involves window treatments. Toward autumn though these should be in our past as well. With time I hope we can recoup these major one-time expenses.

I do know that when we move to Massachusetts we’ll be spending far less to live. Moving to “Taxachusetts” is supposed to be just the opposite, so much so that Massachusetts is frequently cited as one of the most expensive states to live. In our particular case, most of our income is my pension. Massachusetts won’t tax this income. Running the numbers today I quantified the savings: about $380 a month. These savings essentially continue until we are dead. Assuming we live 30 more years and never move out of Massachusetts, that’s $136,800 we can spend on something else.

With a new house under construction, we’ll be renting for three to four months. We’ll be paying $975 a month to rent a two bedroom, one bath apartment in Easthampton. Rent is not the same thing as a mortgage and since we are renting month to month we have no legal commitment beyond the end of the month. The landlord takes our rent and pays for the apartment’s upkeep as well as its property taxes. As a percentage of our monthly income, $975 will be hardly anything and much less than we pay to live in our current house, when you add in the other expenses like lawn care and water.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. We will eventually move into our house paid for with cash, but houses have expenses too. Our property taxes will be more, $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, last time I checked Northampton’s property tax rate. We’ll pay more in property taxes in Massachusetts than we do in Virginia, about $1300 a year more. Property taxes alone should cost us around $620 a month, which is as much as a mortgage payment in many places. Since we’ll be in a condominium, we’ll pay about $350 a month to the condo association, compared to $62 a month we pay now to our homeowners’ association. However, the condo fee includes exterior maintenance, so I won’t have to worry about having the money to replace the siding or the roof. Electricity and water are likely to be more expensive as well, although many houses install solar panels and often get credits from the power company for putting electricity into the grid.

So there’s no way yet to fully quantify our net savings by relocating, retiring and selling our house, but it is likely to be substantial. I don’t expect that we’ll have more money to spend as retirees than when I was working and making more money. That will become clear in time. With a relatively fixed income it will become important to track expenses against a budget and regularly adjust our lifestyles accordingly. Not all costs can be anticipated. But it looks like on April 30 we will not only be debt free but retired both in body and spirit.

Misery loves company

The Thinker by Rodin

My eyes: they are burning. My nose: it is itching and it is sending occasional signals to my lungs to make me sneeze which I do explosively, usually three times in a row, followed by blowing my nose several times until inevitably the cycle repeats itself. In short I have a cold, or perhaps just cold symptoms. The former is more likely because for nearly two weeks my spouse has been under the weather too. She had one of these two-week killer colds last year about this time, and it is back. Until two days ago I had resisted acquiring whatever she had. It’s likely I have something else, but in spite of the regular sneezes from hell that hurts muscles in my back, this is actually a good sign. For me anyhow the cycle rarely varies. The explosive sneezing phase lasts a day or two, but it comes at the end. It takes a few more days for my voice to recover.

One can love one’s spouse while secretly wishing we weren’t sharing so much of our intimate space this way. The last two weeks have been like this, but not because I find my wife particularly grating. I’m used to her and her ways but when she suffers, which is about half the time, she won’t suffer in silence. She’ll let me know and I can’t do much but fetch things for her, offer sympathy and make occasional suggestions that get largely ignored (“why don’t you see a doctor?” “oh, it’s just a cold. there’s nothing they can do.”) until the misery reaches some unbearable zenith and then she is off to the urgent care clinic. Colds come and go but she also gets persistent migraines and other forms of headaches, as well as other chronic issues which effectively mean she spends what seems to me to be half her life, maybe more, in some form of misery. Doctors rarely give relief. She bears it as stoically as she can, which is not much. And so another day ends, a new day begins, and the pattern is likely to repeat.

We go through boxes of tissues at alarming rates but otherwise soldier on. Retirement is supposed to be about enjoying leisure but so far there hasn’t been too much of it. I go to bed later and wake up later, but the business of preparing our house for sale consumes much of my working day, otherwise I am doing consulting when there is work in my inbox. The consulting remains mostly pocket change, if $6000 so far this year is pocket change. The preparing the house for sale task though keeps going on, but there are signs of the edge of the forest. The kitchen gets repainted tomorrow and that is likely the last room to get a full coat of paint.

Between moaning in misery about her own condition, my wife chastised me today for working on the house when I am sick. Experience suggests I will spend the day sneezing regardless, so my feeling is I may as well work, which today involved mostly laying masking tape along edges of floors and cabinets in the kitchen, and painting the baseboards in that room. It’s what I do. I just sort of soldier on because if this is a cold then it’s a minor one, so I might as well keep going. It beats dwelling about how I don’t feel great. The fix up list keeps expanding somehow, but I also know our clock is running out. With my wife out of commission so much, I must take up her slack and that usually means painting something but occasionally involves some minor carpentry, shuffling off donations to places that will take them, or two nights ago, installing some new blinds in our front windows.

Despite the continuous minor construction, the house is looking good. I feel good about all the work and the $7000 or so in direct expenses so far since I retired trying to make the house look new instead of 30 years old. Yesterday I was touch up painting. A new carpet went down in the basement a couple of weeks ago. It looks good and for the first time in the 21 years we’ve been in the house, the basement actually feels warmish in the winter. The house is sort of battened down now with curb appeal, but inside there is still clutter that needs to be sorted through, windows that need cleaning, and more painting to be done. I am guessing we are about 85% done at this point. The hard stuff is largely behind us.

It sometimes seems surreal that we are likely to be moving within three to six months. We had our realtor at our house yesterday and penciled in March 1 as the date to list the house, but maybe February 1. It all depends on decisions not firmly made yet, and one involves whether to have a house constructed near where we plan to live near Northampton, Massachusetts. If so groundbreaking will have to wait until spring thaw, which is usually April 1, and construction will take about six months. House selling though is best done in the spring. It’s peak market and selling at other times of the year is problematic. This means temporary housing is likely in our future, something we are not looking forward to but will likely have to deal with. On the plus side it’s relatively easy to move 5 miles instead of 400.

Our Christmas lights are up on the porch for the last time. The tree will go up at some point too, largely because my daughter will expect one when she visits us on Christmas morning. My wife has done her Christmas shopping. I haven’t started it yet.

I taught my last class at Northern Virginia Community College last night, somewhat challenging as the cold symptoms had kicked in. The final exam is next Tuesday and that should end my fifteen-year off and on again teaching as an adjunct at the college. Teaching there feels comfortable now, so leaving this part of my life leaves me feeling wistful. I’m not sure if I will be able to find teaching opportunities where I end up. I may be closing this chapter in my life.

In retirement I thought I’d have plenty of time to exercise, but it’s challenging getting it in. Working around the house takes up much of my day, and involves a lot of moving around. I figure it counts. I walk around the neighborhood when I can but lots of rain has made walking outside problematic. The gym is still an option, but it’s hard to find the energy to go. Lately I’ve been going only every other week or so.

So that’s basically my life, at present.

Moving the Parents

The Thinker by Rodin

Last week was a week consumed by parental relocation. It was no small logistical feat to move my parents from Midland, Michigan to Silver Spring, Maryland. It would not have been quite the logistical feat it turned out to be if my mother weren’t in such bad shape. This is the biggest logistical exercise my family has ever had to face. It was also one of our most emotionally draining experiences too.

There are so many minor heroes in this act. But it was a time to be very proud of my far-flung family. I am also grateful for a sterling set of in-laws as well as my nieces and nephews. We all went the extra mile.

My father has borne the lion’s share of the work for many months. He has had to deal with major issues like selling their house and selling/giving away/donating most of his possessions, including some that are very cherished. His workbench, for example, has been a fixture in our family for all our living memory. I was going to take it but last month my wife Terri got a workbench from her office. His workbench was left behind for the new owners, but I already grieve for that which I will likely never see it again. I spent many a weekend or evening with my Dad at his workbench, watching him fix things. It was not his skill in carpentry that he imparted to me. I still seem inept in that department despite all that observation. No, I associate the workbench with quality time with my father. With seven other siblings it was hard to find time to talk with Dad by myself. But I could always find time to talk to him alone when he was at his workbench.

Now it is gone along with many other cherished objects. This is what must be done when you move from a single-family house into a two-bedroom apartment. But downsizing their life was just one of my father’s many chores. There was also my mother, who was nearly a full-time occupation by herself. She frequently had to go visit doctors, and ended up in the hospital a couple times. She was often incontinent and needed help in the middle of the night getting to the bathroom. Dad did all that and more. This is no small feat for a 77-year-old man!

Then there was my sister Teri, Mom’s spiritual coach. Before the move my Mom’s spirits were as low as they have ever been. In her last hospital visit she told me she longed for death. She wanted to be out of her misery. Teri came up for the move to keep my mother in one piece while her world changed around her. Teri fussed over her, loved her, consoled her, cheered her up and distracted her. She even flew down from Midland to Washington with them so they could navigate things like airport bathrooms between flights. And of course she steadied Mom who did not have her walker. My mother picked up a bladder infection from her last hospitalization. It was Teri who recognized the symptoms, gave her some pills she had that helped reduce the pain, and took the initiative to get her treatment at a hospital clinic near my house.

My brother in law Tom deserves a son-in-law of the year award. Tom is Teri’s husband. Tom was Mr. Move It Man. He rented a 24-foot truck and directed the meticulous packing of the truck so that everything fit tightly and nothing was damaged. That truck was filled to the brim by the end. And it was all neatly arranged so that furniture could be dropped off at various households on the route. And if directing all that loading and unloading were not enough, Tom actually drove their belongings 600 miles all alone towing their car on a hitch. And yet Tom was unflappable as always. Teri got lucky marrying that guy. Yet his role was absolutely crucial. I don’t think anyone else could have done it.

My brother Tom also played an important role. He flew out from Boulder, Colorado to spend a few days helping to box and load the truck. In the process he got to see my mother at her worst. Mission accomplished brother Tom had to return back to Colorado to resume the meteorology business.

And then there was my sister Mary. It was Mary who took the initiative to find a new and better home for my parents. She spent months looking at retirement communities in the Washington area before settling on a handful near us for my parents to consider. My parents chose Riderwood. But her role went much further. She helped them find the perfect apartment in the place. It has a northern exposure so my Mom wouldn’t have to deal with bright light. Their living room window looks down on a lovely courtyard with a fountain. There is likely no nicer view in all of Riderwood. Mary also worked through numerous logistical issues such as ordering carpet and the types of kitchen cabinets and counters they would get. Once moving day arrived of course she was there to help and patiently involving my Mom in the process. She spent hours with her just asking her where she wanted various items placed.

On move in day there were an even dozen of us altogether. My parents didn’t have to do much of anything. In addition to Mary, Teri and myself there were two brothers in law: Tom and Mary’s husband John. And there were also the grandchildren: five in total, including my 14-year-old daughter Rosie. The grandchildren were wonderful! My daughter, usually something of a fussbudget, did not fuss and all and cheerfully moved furniture up two flights of stairs. She was joined by four of her cousins, including my sister Doris’s son Vincent, daughter Cheryl, and Mary and John’s son Ryan and daughter Margo.

It was still stressful for my mother. It was a challenge to get her bed out of the truck and in place so she could lie down and rest. But we managed. They are still sorting through boxes and doubtless will for some time. But at one week they are reasonably settled in. And although their payoff has yet to come for all this work soon their lives will be simpler. They are already enjoying their gratis evening meal every night in the Riderwood dining facilities.

My mother’s spirits are better. She is still as fatigued as always, but she is moving on. She is still so obviously depressed (and won’t get treatment) but she at least has distractions. There is the evening meal and new neighbors to meet. A woman just like my Mom, a Catholic with 8 children is just across the hall. Perhaps her social isolation will end and she will discover at the end of life that life can still be good.

My parents and I are blessed with a remarkable family. There are times when I think we are an acerbic, cynical and depressing lot of people. But our hearts are full of love. We were there for our parents in their days of most pressing need. I am sure most adult children would do the same for their parents. This was just another minor miracle driven by love. It feels good to give back in some small measure the love that we received all those years.