August 2006


For much of the last few months, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in a raging shoe-storm. Those “other shoes” we’re always warned about weren’t so much dropping as they were raining on my head. These weren’t sleek Prada slip-ons, either – more like size 12 Carharts. The cost of redoing my two aging bathrooms went up a good 15 percent as estimates progressed from initial to final, my basement seemed to be sweating water even when it hadn’t rained for days, I hit an extremely dry spell with work, my microwave oven died (caused, I believe, by one too many NStar power glitches – what is it with that company’s lines?), and my washing machine began showing signs of imminent demise. The combination of a 2-ton dumpster (see bathroom note, above) and 2-1/2 weeks of no water (also see bathroom note, above) completely fried my front lawn, and I developed a sinus infection, thanks to all the mold floating around my house (see bathroom/basement notes above), which lasted for almost five weeks.

I began to feel like the house I loved hated me, and I started saying little prayers every time I opened the refrigerator door, pushed the dryer’s “start” button or turned on a sink faucet – “please still work, please still work, please still work.” Having moved myself 1,200 miles from a tried-and-true support network, it seemed I was going through this possibly fading love affair all alone.

Lately, though, the clouds of shoe leather seem to have parted, and I’m starting to breathe regularly again. I’ve had two successful rounds of guests in the last month, and all functioned fine during the visits. The corpse of a microwave still lingers in my basement, next to the trash can, but the washing machine is still running (though I have to manually move the cycle knob to get it to progress from “wash” to “rinse” and “spin”). I also think I know what’s going on with the basement’s sweating issue – the copper water-supply line from the meter runs along the top of the front basement wall, and water was condensing and dripping from it in streams during the really hot, humid days of July. I just had to look up – instead of staring down, preoccupied, at the damp concrete floor – to figure out the problem. I think a simple foam insulating sleeve should keep the pipe, and floor, nice and dry.

The bathrooms, though they cost more than anticipated, are possibly the two nicest I’ve ever had. I just finished painting them last night, reinstalled all the hardware and hung a couple pictures and, suddenly, my house seems to like me again. It’s like I picked out just the right let’s-make-up-not-break-up present, and now all is right with the world. I’m even looking forward to spending the Labor Day weekend painting the two guest bedrooms, with the thought the house will like me even more at the end of that job. And work is now keeping me busy again – at least enough to pay the mortgage for the next month or two, which is about as much job security as a freelance writer gets.

Of course, my ever-cautious other side – the side that looks down at a damp basement floor instead of up at the culprit sweating pipe – is just waiting for another shoe-storm to show up on the radar screen, like the next named-storm news from NOAA. That part wants to keep worrying through the bright spots. It’s as if not fully enjoying the good times will somehow appease fate enough to make the difficult times just a little easier around the edges when they arrive.

But the trick, I think, to really enjoying life is to turn that logic around – maybe the good times are really the prize we’re given for getting ourselves through the rough patches in one piece. Not enjoying these rare moments is like rejecting a gift life has handed you, and could make the next bad spell even worse. So, I’m going to work on smiling at my bathrooms instead of frowning at the washer and not knocking on wood every time I mention good news. And, instead of worrying about the next major disaster in the love affair I’m carrying on with my house, I’m going to be thinking about that perfect pair of tassel loafers I could earn for making it through the next shoe-storm that passes overhead.

I learned from a very early age that words others may have used as virtual synonyms actually had quite distinct meanings. Take, for example, the words “lady” and “woman.” As my stepmother made quite clear to me, every lady is a woman, but not every woman is a lady.

Similarly, I try to be quite specific in my use of the words “house” and “home.” A house is a physical object, with its own distinct roof and walls. An apartment is not a house, but it may well be a home, for home, as we all know, is simply the place where our heart lives.

For some reason, I’ve been writing about both houses and homes for most of my professional life. When I write about design and architecture, I’m mostly writing about houses – how they function, why certain kitchen decisions make sense, how furniture placement makes a space work more effectively. This blog is a place where I can write more about home – the emotional response a structure and its location can evoke.

I’m also fascinated by the sub-genre of personal memoir and essay writing that focuses on personal relationships with buildings. Artists are often said to “live” in their works in a metaphorical way, but those who restore, renovate or build a home from scratch – and then write about the process – live in their creations in a very real way. New England seems to have spawned more than its fair share of these works, and I thought I’d share some thoughts about some of my favorites.

“The Outermost House,” by Henry Beston (Henry Holt & Company) isn’t really about a house, but the house is certainly a character in this masterpiece of naturalist writing, which has sadly become almost a cliche. Thanks to the book’s notoreity, the word “outermost” has become ubiquitous in Cape retailing. But stop on a walk out along the National Seashore some deserted autumn day and open this book to almost any page, then imagine living in a 20-ft. by 16-ft. uninsulated structure in this setting through all four seasons. Beston’s little dune shack became both a master to be served – sand climbing its outside walls had to be regularly dug away – and sanctuary, especially when howling nor’easters threatened to tear it board-from-post. When the house finally blew away in a 1978 storm, the Cape lost an important touchstone in its inhabited history.

“Cottage for Sale* *Must Be Moved” by Kate Whouley (Commonwealth Editions) documents a beach shack of a very different sort. Whouley fell in love with one of those cute little vacation-park cottages from its listing in a classified ad. The land upon which it and several neighbors had sat had been sold off for redevelopment, and Whouley was convinced the unit would make the perfect, ready-made addition to her existing 3-room cottage on Cape Cod. She spent the better part of 18 months, along with a fair amount of cash and no end of detail-tending, making this relocation happen. This is an obsession with which I can completely relate. I moved myself 1,200 miles to live in a house I’d fallen in love with, and she moved a cottage 20 miles to create a home in a spot she already loved.

At the other end of the size spectrum, “The Big House” by George Howe Colt (Scribner) tells the story of one of those massive shingled piles whose original owners had the audacity to call a “cottage.” The 100-year-old structure is about to be sold after a lifetime in Colt’s family – it needs a major overhaul and the family’s fortunes aren’t quite as fortunate as they once were. Colt wraps 42 years of summer memories in this tale told so well that you can feel the sand-worn floors under your feet and smell that salty-mildewy scent that defines summer on the Cape. You also can feel the vodka-and-tonic-infused tension as family relationships shift and reestablish themselves in the house through each year’s three-month tennancy. It’s like a soap opera told in stop-action format.

“Red House,” (Penguin) is an epic, of sorts, spanning the more than 350 years during which the author’s family home has stood on its Marshfield, Mass., foundation. Sarah Messer’s parents bought the place, called New England’s oldest continuously lived-in house, from a direct ancestor of the original builder in 1965, and Sarah grew up among its horsehair-plaster walls. It’s difficult to explain the ghostly presence this house and its former residents seem to assume in the Messer family’s life, but Sarah tells a compelling story of how intertwined these entities become. The original builder, Walter Hatch, stipulated in his will that the house should never be sold to owners outside of his direct decendants, and there’s often a sense that the house, itself, resents the presence of these outsiders. But the Messers are as devoted to the structure as the Hatches, as proved in their eventual restoration efforts (following two near-catastrophic fires), which may help keep the place standing another 350 years.

“Home: A Short History of an Idea,” by Witold Rybczynski (Penguin) is a bit of a cheat on this list. It’s not a memoir at all, but it does fit nicely on any bookshelf devoted to houses and their admirers. Rybczynski’s an architectural historian, and he explains how we can thank the Dutch for our current differentiation between house and home. It seems the culture known more recently for legalized pot and prostitution also is responsible for making domestic life comfortable. As the Dutch became trading masterminds, a middle class emerged with budgets large enough to afford homes with specialized rooms – rooms for sleeping that were separate from rooms for eating, for example. Purpose-driven furniture design followed, and, voila, 300 years later we had the Lazy Boy recliner, complete with cupholders.

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