Monday, October 18, 2010

House: A Memoir ...

I really do love where I live.

Some days, I feel guilty about having this much space to myself, though my house, by modern standards, is small.

It is a modest '50s ranch that has had some work done, two additions over the years, a wall removed, the basement finished. It was too small for a family but feels too big for just me.

But as I was saying, I love it.

Over the years, I have filled the spaces, painted walls, hung art, and searched for rugs in vain. Why are rugs so hard to find? Rugs I like, that is? When I first moved in, the family room – what I call my TV room – was all but barren. It is now the coziest room in the house, but it still wants for a proper rug.

My style has evolved over time, as I suppose all styles do. Early on, even before I had my first apartment, I managed to convince myself that I wanted black leather furniture and tables of chrome and glass. That said "city" to me, I suppose. But while I love the city life, I am anything but sleek. My tastes quickly turned completely, and I contemplated a sofa from the era of the ticking-stripe craze.

Neither won.

The first upholstered piece I bought for my new place is the loveseat on which I still sit. It needs new cushions.

But here it sits, today, in my house, its third home. It is where I write and where I read. Most recently, Michael Ruhlman's memoir, "House."

My friend Martha, one of the many layers of silver lining from the dark cloud of my friend Dave's death, recommended it to me more months ago than I care to contemplate. I have a bad habit of buying books, reading a handful of chapters eagerly, and then turning my attention to other things. This bad behavior is in no way a reflection of the most of the books but rather of my restless nature of late, a trait which is greatly exacerbated by the constant distraction of the Internet.

But "House" began calling to me again, perhaps because of the shift in the weather driving everyone inside.

And so, this weekend, I took to it again, and finished it this afternoon.

It is partly the story of the renovation of a century-old house, partly a history of Cleveland and the circumstances that saw the construction of such homes, and partly a reflection on the meaning of life.

As I read yesterday, and the day's light began to fade, I paused to prepare the house for the evening, closing curtains, bringing up lights to their dimmer-enabled glows. I slipped on my well-worn shoes and headed over to the neighbors' for a moment to deliver some brownies I'd baked earlier in the day. And as I walked back to my house in the gloaming and opened the front door, a wave of gratitude washed over me. I am profoundly fortunate, I thought. Ruhlman's book reminded me of how much I love where I live.

I'm sure I was born in the wrong time. For as much as I love technology – and perhaps because of it – I long for what must have been a simpler age. More arduous in some ways, for the lack of present-day conveniences, but more rooted in what matters most.

Someday, I want to put a porch on the front of this house – I long ago sketched out what I would show to a builder – to have a place to sit and read and watch the world go by but also to welcome passers by, neighbors, and friends, who could sit on the porch on a warm day and have a glass of lemonade or iced tea and chat for a while before continuing on their way.

I have a bit of that with my neighbor, who always invites me in for a cup of coffee when I stop over, but it seems like there must have been a time when that behavior wasn't the exception but the rule.

But I live in this time, no other. And I love my modest house. And I love that I'm forever glancing people walk by, that I live in a place where sidewalks persist, where not everyone gets in their SUVs to run every errand, where I can walk to the drugstore and the grocery store, the post office.

Some days, I contemplate moving back to a smaller space, a one-bedroom apartment would suit me, I think. Maybe two. Maybe room for guests. Or an office. I often find myself asking how much space I really need.

Ruhlman and his family move into their new home well before it is completed, and so they set up house on the third floor. He writes: "The playroom, eighteen by twenty feet, now functioned as master bedroom, kitchen, and living room, and it was big enough to handle all of those duties more or less comfortably for a family of four, plenty big enough to live in permanently, that floor alone."

Of course, they would eventually have plenty of room to spread out, a kitchen, a dining room, an office, a living room, bedrooms, the basement, the rebuilt front porch. But we're used to space in this country, in excess. I guess that's what comes of landing on the east coast centuries ago and being able to spread out nearly endlessly before arriving at another shore.

And spread out they do, his family, but he ponders:

"Had we become superficial sybarites, vainly struggling with the meaninglessness of our empty suburban lives by wallowing in an equally meaningless material world, one filled with Ralph Lauren faux furniture and Jeep Grand Cherokees and overpriced Williams-Sonoma terrine molds? I mean, really, what were we doing, and why were we doing it? Was it all for shallow comfort? Given than we already had an acceptable house, shouldn't we be putting our time and resources toward something more meaningful than a larger, more comfortable one on a lovelier street? What were we doing with our lives that made this big gamble, this extraordinary upheaval, a good decision? Was this domesticity that we craved a romantic lie? Nostalgic? Sentimental? Was it always in the searching rather than in the having—would we always crave more goods, bigger houses to fill the existential void?

"I had no desire to flay myself unnecessarily. I'd give myself every benefit of the doubt, but I also didn't want to live in delusions. What did I really want, and was it a good thing or bad?

"Only this: to roast a chicken in my nifty thirty-six-inch Viking oven after a productive day of work, a big Boos cutting board on the spacious island, a fire crackling, Donna spotting her black-and-white prints at the table, and the kids either at my ankles or nearby playing. If it was Sunday, with the Cleveland Browns on in the background, losing. I'd know that all was right with the universe, the planets were aligned. I wanted that, and I wanted at least the hope of seeing grandchildren visit the very same kitchen and to roast a chicken for them as well. I wanted what Rybczynski refers to as domestic comfort, and I wanted it absolutely."

Indeed. Not many pages later, he writes: "The sight of the kids in the low evening sun, in their own time, made me so happy I became sad."

There are endless emotions tied up in our homes and our experiences in and around them, the memories from the places of our childhoods, the endless, carefree summer days, holiday parties, birthdays, anniversaries, morning coffee, the sounds and smells.

For him, his home is very literally a place in the universe, a place of permanence, home to several families before his, some of whom he comes to know. His concern, and mine, is that that sensibility is waning.

"Community," he writes. "That's what it's all about I thought. This was a damn good neighborhood. And it was going to stay that way ... .

"But what happens to a country where we all leave our places on an average of four years? Who will take care to build and maintain an excellent structure, a durable house, that they're going to leave pretty soon? We're going to construct houses and buildings that are increasingly like the rooms at Best Western and the Sheraton; our houses are going to have the quality and appeal of a generic hotel room."

And he's right. Have you watched a design show lately? Some actually feature design, but the shows dedicated to getting a home ready to sell? Could those rooms look any more uninspired? Greige paint on the walls; espresso-finish, do-it-yourself furniture; a few well-placed pillar candles and you're good to go. Everyone oohs and ahhs. And their reactions to a fixer-upper? Work to be done? God forbid.

It is, as I mentioned to a friend one day, the Courtyard by Marriottitization of America. No, thank you.

I have many more sticky notes jutting out from the pages of his book, but I'll stop rambling and simply recommend that you read it yourself. With the hopes that you can do so in a space that you love.


Blogger David W. Berner said...

My I also recommend HOUSE, by Tracy Kidder. A marvelous read on building a place we love.

David W. Berner

1:58 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Thanks for the recommendation, David. I'm always happy to investigate another book to add to the never-ending stack!

2:01 PM  

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