June 2006


The great thing about houses is how they, generally speaking, stay the way you make them. You paint a wall green, it doesn’t, two days later, decide it would rather be blue-gray and pout about the difference. You decide to change out the bathroom, and manage to find and call in a competent contractor and, presto change-o, you have a toilet that flushes without leaking, a shower that features both hot and cold running water and a light over the medicine cabinet that highlights what remains of those oft-remarked-upon dimples.

Perhaps this is one reason why my relationships with my homes have been so much more successful than my relationships with significant others. It’s not the control, so much (though the ex-es might debate that point), as the dependability. Sure, that sage-green wall may fade to an unfortunate, Linda Blair’ish, pea-soup color, or the over-sink light may short out thanks to the leaking toilet above, but another coat of paint or a quick electrician visit can bring these wobbling elements back into alignment. People are just so much more complicated than that.

And what if you hit a point in your house love affair when things seem, somehow, just not quite right? You get that indefinable feeling one often tries simply to ignore in relationships with people, because dealing with people in these situations can be so darned prickly. In this case, you’ve tried to add a new spark to your house affair – painted your bedroom what you thought was the perfect periwinkle, rearranged all the furniture, hung new prints, bought new linens – but, still, you’re afraid something may be pulling the two of you apart, dulling your feelings for each other little by little, a day at a time.

Because you know your house isn’t going anywhere, though; isn’t going to decide it just needs some space, or more sessions with its therapist, you relax, give it time and just live… drink your morning coffee, handle your clients’ business, shake up your evening gimlet, try to make it through one more chapter of whatever it is you’re reading now before drifting off to sleep. With trust that your shelter will remain sheltering, you can allow the love to return on its own.

And then you wake up one morning and say to yourself as the early light hits the western wall, “What was I thinking? Yellow, that’s what this room needs is yellow!” And it’s done – rollers and paint pans later, it’s the same room, yet completely different – the same house, even, yet completely different.

“Wow, that was great,” you say, as you lay back in bed the next evening, spent from the furious expenditure of energy, and luxuriating in comfort of re-found bliss. “Why can’t relationships be that much fun?”


For the last month, I’ve been watching the winter moth caterpillars feeding like locusts throughout my yard, turning my trees’ leaves into green lace handkerchiefs. Last week I came down with poison ivy between my fingers, complete with boil-like blisters. I’ve spent most of the last two days bailing my basement out – for the second time in three weeks – as a result of Wednesday’s torrential storms. With up to three more inches of rain predicted for this evening, I’m beginning to wonder, is the Cape trying to tell me something?

We hear everyday about how fragile the ecosystem is here, out on this flexed arm of earth. The last month or so has me thinking that our environment has its own ways of defending itself against its human interlopers. And this time also has provided me with a crash course on just how important it is here to pay attention to my immediate surroundings in a way I haven’t had to in a very long time.

The biggest lesson I’ve discovered in the three months since I arrived is that one is much closer to the environment here than in a big city, like my old hometown of Chicago. I don’t just mean that it takes less time to get to the beach, but, in a larger sense, what happens around us here has a much bigger impact without the added safety net a big city can provide. Many of our homes (mine very much included) may look like something out of a suburban landscape, but they are built in a setting that has never been tamed the way those former farm fields have.

Sure, we got major rainstorms in Chicago, but we also had an extensive sewer system and a brand new, multi-billion-dollar stormwater tunnel that carried most of that water away. I’d occasionally get a slight trickle from the basement wall next to the gutter downspout, but that would be the most of it. Rain might slow down traffic a bit – Chicago drivers turn into raving idiots in the rain, ask anyone who drives there – but that would generally be the extent of any real impact.

And, in Chicago’s much-ballyhooed winters, we would from time to time get a major snowstorm. The television stations and newspapers would kick into gear two days ahead of time, pushing fears of an oncoming Armageddon with images of emptying supermarket shelves. But those of us who had followed the city’s political history knew we could ignore the hype. Mayors had lost their jobs in that burg as a result of botched blizzard clean-up efforts, so snow predictions there are like a call to war. With the first falling flakes, an armada of snow plows and salt trucks resembling the build-up prior to Operation Iraqui Freedom hits the streets, and doesn’t stop until the last frozen crystal has been vanquished.

Here, I’ve discovered, when a storm hits, it can have real impact. Weatherunderground.com has become a regular resource for me – I learned about it from my brother, who lives on the hurricane-prone North Carolina coast. Not only do I visit the site, I also pay attention to the forecasts and watch the radar. I also am starting to actually learn about the plants around me, especially since some of them make me break out in hives. And, though I ignored all those government urgings after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting, I’m starting to think about what I might want to have around if a natural disaster hits here.

This closer relationship to the world around me has amped up my stress levels a bit in the short term. But, it’s also made me feel much more connected to my environment than I ever did in my former, more urban home. When you’re one resident in a city of 3 million, putting up walls and ignoring the surrounding cacaphony can become an important survival mechanism. Here, one needs to pay attention and react, because there’s a chance that stock of bottled water and batteries could actually come in handy.

I’m learning to be more aware, to maybe be more prepared for the next way my new home will try to surprise me. I keep an eye on the water levels of the mighty Considine – the drainage ditch that cuts across my backyard. I mark the locations of particularly nasty poison ivy patches. I make a note to call the tree guy first thing next spring to spray against munching pests. I keep my senses open for signs of the next plague with which the Cape may threaten me.

So, tell me, has anyone else found the peepers to be especially loud this year?

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