Of house and home

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 29, 2017, 11:38 AM | comments: 0

My mom visited us today, first time since the move. Showing her, or anyone, around is kind of weird, because the reaction is that we sure have a lot of space. I wouldn't describe it as embarrassing, but it makes me uncomfortable for some reason. At no point in our lives has it ever been a goal to have a house of any particular size, and in fact it wasn't until fairly recently that we felt like we wanted more. When I look back through the years, writing about house and home, I realize now that it has been something of an obsessive topic for me. For more than a decade, I think I've been trying to figure out what home is supposed to be, and what it means. The physical place (house) and the abstract thing (home) have been hard for me to reconcile.

It was more simple when I was a kid. I grew up at 3411 W. 47th Street in Cleveland, a weird 1,300 sq. ft. house built in 1895 that was at some point in the 50's converted to a duplex unit, then combined later back to a single-family house. It was weird, because there was a back mud room of sorts that was added on to the back, with a bathroom (that wasn't used as such, and I almost never went in), that you had to go through to get to the stairs. It wasn't heated, so it was cold to go through in the winter. Then at the top of the stairs, you had to cross through my parents' bedroom to get to the other two bedrooms, and my brother's room had a kitchen sink in it. It was heated with a gas heater you had to light, and somehow we never died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Incredibly, much of my extended family would come over there on Christmas Eve. We'd get 20 people in that house, somehow. The back yard had three epic pine trees, the tallest of which was probably 40 feet tall. There was a sandbox and a swing set, and the pop-up camper fit next to the garage, which was falling apart. As a kid, I didn't know any better about the size of the house, or that it was in a bad neighborhood.

I drove by it some years ago, maybe in 2007, with Diana. It was in decent shape, and Zillow said it had last sold for an astounding $92k two years before that. The neighborhood was a mixed bag, filled with houses in decay and some that had experienced complete renovations. The photo below shows it as photographed by Google in 2014, the boarded up window saying "NO PVC OR COPPER," meaning the plumbing had long since been stolen. The garage was obviously long gone.

A part of me would really like to see the inside of that place, if it's even still there. I'm curious to know what was changed starting in 1988.

When we moved to Brunswick, the suburbs, our 1969 house was technically smaller at 1,100 sq. ft., but the basement effectively doubled the size of the house, and it was usable space. We would have a ton of people for Christmas at that house as well. For some reason, that house never really felt like "home" to me, I guess because high school was kind of difficult for me, and in some ways I resented the town. What a conflict of feelings there, because I credit some of the most positive influences in my life to teachers and coaches there, and I obviously didn't resent it enough to not buy my first house in the same town.

I had three different dorm rooms in college, four if you count the transient time in summer housing, plus a rental house at the edge of campus. It's weird how I think of all of those places as cold. The dorms seemed to mostly be heated to excess so you could open the window to regulate it. Those old buildings were not energy efficient, that's for sure. I made a lot of memories in those places, but they never quite felt like home either, maybe because they were transient stops on the way to some future.

I spent nearly a year at my parents' house after school, which as you might expect resulted in a lot of self-loathing, but I still had this idea in my head that I was going to have a radio career where I made enough to move out. After I abandoned it late that winter, I eventually got the government TV job in the neighboring town, and that summer I had my first grownup apartment, with around 600 sq. ft. of space. Stephanie and I were still dating at that point, but she didn't move in until the middle of that school year, graduating a semester early.

After that first year, we moved to a really nice, fairly new, 2-bedroom place, a block away, with a comfortable 1,090 sq. ft. We ended up being there for nearly four years. I have a lot of fond memories of that place, having little parties, my first real furniture, playing computer games at my "cockpit" style desk in the spare bedroom (so much Rollercoaster Tycoon!). I got married the first time while living there. While I didn't care for sharing the laundry room with the other tenants, I liked living there. It felt like home. I theorize that it's because it was the first time in my life that I generally felt confident about where I belonged. I was good at my job, I was in a relationship, I had a functional car, I had a great circle of friends... I'm not a box-checking checklist kind of guy, but everything was generally in order.

This world continued for me in my first house, and it was my comfort place for what would end up being seven or eight chaotic years that involved layoffs, divorce, dating, second marriage, conception and ultimately, questions about what house and home really meant. The chaos forced me to realize that my attachment to the physical location of the house limited my options and my world view. I was so busy retreating into my cocoon that I failed to see the possibilities.

I rebooted life in Seattle. A new wife, new job, new baby, three time zones away was exactly what I needed. Our first apartment there was a shock to the system, but in a good way. While initially enthusiastic about it, I grew to hate it because it was a bit of a fishbowl (everything in the Seattle area is on a hill, and in this case, anyone in the parking lot could see into every room in the place). But our second place, a rental house (half of a duplex), was pretty exciting. It was almost as big as our Cleveland house. The floor plan was a little awkward, but the location was amazing. We weren't far from my brother-in-law's house, we were walking distance to a small grocery store and an Irish pub, view of the mountains... it was awesome.

Unfortunately, I still couldn't sell my house in Cleveland, and in the story I've told many times, we made the terrible decision to move back, save a bunch of money, etc. It's a regret that I have such a hard time letting go of. I fucking resented that place the day I got back, and the winter made it worse. For the 20 months we lived back there, I felt like a stranger in the very area where I spent more than three decades. During that time, I had my first always-remote job, and I realized that working from home was awesome, even if I wasn't sure what home was. I never felt like any of the situation made sense, that I belonged where I was.

By July 2013, we were living in a rental in Orange County, Florida, where rent is totally irrational and we were paying Seattle rent prices for houses that cost half as much. We were on the ground 30 days before we pulled the trigger on a new build, because for all of the loss around selling that damn Cleveland house, financially it did make sense against the high rent of the area. Diana and I finally had a place that was "ours" and we had not just a house, but a home.

This year I realized that the house was still important, even if it doesn't make it a home, and the years of remote work made it clear that space is pretty important when you live and work in the same place. In the average week, I'm probably lucky to get a dozen hours away from the house. Comfort and room to move around are vitally important. Furthermore, I've worked very hard the last six years to right our financial ship, and I'm not going to feel bad about buying that comfort and room to move around. Despite all of the challenges that have come with parenting, I feel like I belong in the place that I am, which is definitely not something that you can buy. It's a long way from 3411 W. 47th Street.


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