Friday, October 09, 2015

[House and Home] Home, Bittersweet Home

I believe I have been in my house for just about 5 years now, and it's been an interesting journey. I decided to buy the house because I thought my credentials as a mainstream adult were weak. As a lifelong bachelor, there was never any urgent need to lay down roots or make a home and safety zone for family and a bulwark against the world. My abodes were always simple places that only contained a bed, wi-fi, and cable TV. I almost never cooked. My furniture was rudimentary -- no, not lawn chairs, but nothing you couldn't buy on clearance at Art Van. My life revolved around work, travel, endeavors in fitness, and keeping up with my friends. Opinions on such a life would vary. Some would focus on the absence of family and deem it empty. Some (including some with families) would envy the freedom.

Strangely, I think what made me buy the house was my contrarian nature. The story-book middle class life is often seen as a trap -- a delusion that lacks some form of authenticity. Many in the highly-opinionated classes dismiss the everyday activities of normal suburban life as shallow and soulless. The McMansions, the mowing of lawns and grilling of meat and painting of bedrooms, the raising of children -- these are often thought of, or at least fictionally portrayed as, distractions from deeper and more noble concerns and unacknowledged sources of oppression and disappointment for the inhibited, deluded people who engage in them. We, instead, worship the city-dwelling creative hipsters and the sorts who eschew the world in search for their own Walden Pond.


The contrarian in me does not see things like that. I don't think of normal suburban life as empty. My first assumption about it is that it must be about the best life possible because everybody seems to want to do it. Most people in world who struggle day-to-day would identify an upper middle class life in the exburbs as paradise; perhaps even more so than a rich-and-famous life. This leads me to inevitable assumption that those who see the common suburban world as peopled with mindless sheeple are probably just doing some sort of signalling about how edgy and unafraid they are. I also suspect that, when push comes to shove, they'll often end up driving minivans to soccer practice and concocting excuses why it doesn't really count as selling out. (This somewhat dovetails with a growing belief I have that most people in the developed world are happy, but they can't bring themselves to admit it.)

So the idea in my head was something like this: If everybody is doing it or wants to, maybe there's something to it. Even if I don't fit the demographic, maybe I should spend a few years finding out what the attraction is. It didn't hurt that this coincided with the bottom of the real estate melt down which helped me purchase a house that even five years before would have been out of the question.

My house is much bigger than I need it to be: 4 bedroom/3.5 bath/2.5 acres -- all for just me. It is in one of the very best and most beautiful neighborhoods in the area. All this was possible because of the drop in real estate prices. I have no doubt the previous owners took a beating. Whether that means it's going to be a good investment or not is another matter. The expenses of homeownership have been quite a cold shower. Within a year I had to spring for a new furnace. Despite it being the most efficient model possible, heating the house is astonishingly expensive, even though I have the entire upstairs closed off and vents covered.. I have a well, which saves on water bills, but salt for water conditioning is a steady expense and I just dropped a couple of grand for a iron removal system -- makes me miss city water. God knows what it'll cost me if the well pump fails. Keeping up the lawn and yard is another expense. I started mowing the grass myself, but a with yard that large and sloping it was pushing two hours to finish -- did that for a couple of years and now I have a service. In fact, all landscaping is costly, even when I do it myself which typically ends in failure and I have to re-do it. The lawn needs to be sprayed and the trees need attention, because in my fine neighborhood you just don't let your gardens go to weeds or your lawn be other than fresh and green. A couple of grand to replace some dying trees. New asphalt driveway and periodic sealing. New deck, fireplace, flooring. The latest: removal of a couple of red squirrels living in my walls and keeping me awake with their squirrelish scurrying about. The list goes on. It's serious scratch to own such a house above and beyond buying it, none of which will be recovered at resale time. And it's serious time to maintain. Just vacuuming the place takes all afternoon. I could outsource yet more tasks, and probably will, and the expense will just keep ratcheting higher.

So those are the Cons. Where does that leave me on the Pro side? Well, I have learned a lot. I can paint a room without taping the borders. I can install toilet and sink hardware. I can change the belt on a riding lawn mower. I can clear a driveway with a snow blower. I can have house guests without any sort of crowding or discomfort. And frankly, my house is just beautiful. It abuts an extended protected area and the view out the windows of my living room, bedroom, and sunroom (yes, there is a sunroom) is sweet. But the fact is I don't enjoy it as much as my visitors because when I look around I often just see so many projects. I am no longer the carefree, irresponsible lad, but a fellow who has certain roots and responsibilities (if not truly a full slate of them) on his shoulders. Oh, and I can converse intelligently, and from experience, with normal adults about homeownership. The fact that I list this as a pro gives me pause to wonder whether I actually took this path not to understand the experience but because I was concerned with my image to others. I hope not, but I can't deny that for certain because I am as capable of self-delusion as anyone.

Another discovery is that my sense of dissatisfaction runs very deep and is perhaps insurmountable. Like I said, when I look at the place I see projects, others look at it and think it's really quite lovely. They are right. It is. Yet I can't hang out at home and think, "This is great. I'm sure glad I did this." There is too much I would like to do in terms of renovations to get the place to point where it matches my vision of perfect. It's become something of a challenge to see if I can get the place to a point where I do feel I would be content just to hang out and enjoy my home. So my attachment to my house is heavily depended on my desire to rise to a challenge. Weird.

Maybe that is the core issue. Can I really be satisfied with my surroundings, or for that matter, can I be satisfied with anything? I strongly suspect the answer is no, but I plan to give it a few more years of effort.

My next house will certainly be different. The next one will have to be simpler and smaller as it will probably be the home that I reside in to senescence. It will also fit better with my lifestyle, but I will only know what fits me better because I will have been through this house. In fact, I will likely miss this house when it is gone. The good memories will last. Whatever the vagaries of my feelings now, I am confident I will appreciate it very much in retrospect. When it is no longer a challenge.

Said and done: I can see why people love this life. It is safe and clean and comfortable beyond imagination, and the concerns I listed above are all manufactured and personal, not existential or even external. In my first novel, one of the passing characters was a Korean immigrant who was convinced that his beautiful suburban home in Grosse Pointe was the ultimate state of being. I wrote that only half-sincerely, but it should have been absolutely sincere. The character was right. The upper-middle class ex-burbs are really the pinnacle -- short of pure Utopia, but probably as good as us poor flawed humans can get. We should appreciate it more.