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Upsize, same-size, downsize

When tech was bubbling, our software business was there in a minor way, my husband contracting for a billionaire who wanted his MP3 and image collections database set up and made accessible from his various homes and yachts, and was willing to hire a whole team and pay well. We bought land then and paid off our “starter” house in town, a 1200 square foot rancher plus garage. Not a dream home, but acceptable, and affordable. We invested not in the stock market, thank heaven, but in land–our own twenty acres, the dream property that satisfied my husband’s longing for woods and mountains and water view, and mine for enough light for a garden and lots of cool places to explore with the kids.We got to work on it right away–smoothed the driveway, cut down alders and blackberry vines (after harvest), scraped away a ledge for the garden, planted and watered it from the dusty well, planted miniature daffodils around an old willow, and fenced the garden to try to keep out deer. Then we planted apple trees, killed a porcupine that was devouring them, and skinned it at midnight back at the house, me holding the light and giving directions as a former novice trapper. I don’t recommend learning this skill on a porcupine.

We worked on a house design, a modified mirror-image of one we found in a magazine. It was to be a homeschooling family house with room for crafts, a shop, lots of light. But it always ended up too big, too overwhelming to tackle, and too much of a leap, seemingly, into exclusivity, and the promise of an enormous tax bill once the land was changed from woodlot to view residential status. I couldn’t imagine myself living such a privileged existence anyway. And in trying to combine our ideas and preferences, we kept getting stressed and stuck. One wanted a soaring ceiling, one wanted a cozy height. One wanted a huge shop, the other a small one. One wanted rooms for every type of activity, the other didn’t wanted to multi-use to cut down on housekeeping. And we both cared about wood finishes, colors, styles, and furnishings, so even that couldn’t be divided and conquered. The discussion was taking too much, time, too much energy, and was generating too much conflict. We had children to raise, other things to accomplish, so we shelved the house plans. We didn’t have time and mental space, as my husband was commuting to the city and I was raising the four kids, homeschooling, keeping the books. It was a very busy, absorbing time without extra projects.

The property sat idle, produced trees, thistles, deer, butterflies and spring peepers faithfully. We’d go now and then, drawing in our breath at the beauty and peacefulness—a fern-dressed creek hidden in the gorge at the back, the aroma of live woods, at the view–southwest over the Puget Sound, but it never did feel like the right time to build our house. So we just camped there when we could, set up a big tent, a repurposed sink to wash up, solar shower, gas barbecue, even electricity for the cooler. The kids ran around, dug miniature rivers and lakes, carved sticks, built forts, caught lizards and snakes and hunted for shed antlers and fossils. We had all their birthday parties there, with Capture the Flag, water fights, an evening campfire and sometimes tent camping. kids running around in the woods, up and down the gravel lane between tall alders and arched blackberry brambles. The parents visited around the food tables and campfire, and sometimes we camped around in various clearings. We mowed now and then, tried to keep back some of the brambles, and left it houseless (though we did pour a foundation for a cabin above the main site).

A neighboring property sprouted a castle-like house, complete with emerald lawn, tidy ferns, picnic park. The neighborhood gate opened and closed to its various coded inputs, we paid our dues to help with road maintenance, but went to the property less and less. We started looking for an already built house elsewhere in the county, but everything we both liked, and these were few, and overpriced, because it was the Bubble. Then tech slowed down, and instead of investing in overpriced real estate, we banked on our savings for a two and a half year study sabbatical overseas. The property would be a fun place to visit, and a long term investment to atone for low retirement savings. It grew cedars and regrew alders where we were away. for another few years while we were away

We came back rich with experiences, but financially broke–more than broke, as the economy continued to flag, and we had little work. We chose to resettle in our same town instead of closer to urban-based tech work, and I was to return to teaching. But my credentials were outdated and I had no recent references, and responsibilities at home were still heavy, our kids adjusting to life back in the states, to public school, and getting involved in athletics, music lessons. Plus our house had been water damaged and needed updating, so when my husband got work, extra cash went into the remodel, which we did mostly ourselves, and so it took a long time. We couldn’t afford to add on, so reconfigured the inside and set up a bedroom in the garage for two of the kids. Smaller than our overseas apartment had been, it was tight with six of us; there was tension, our oldest two moving into adolescence and wanting more space we didn’t have. A psychiatrist friend mentioned research on rodents kept in cramped quarters.

We pressed on to finish the fix-up so we could upsize, but to that rare entity, a house with arable land on the south side. Prices were down–in some cases to almost half. But so was our income, we couldn’t get a loan because of our years off work, and savings were non-existent. We’d even dipped into retirement and borrowed from family on both sides (and paid a penalty).

The castle next to our dream property, one our neighbors there built on spec, sold for several million. We met with the neighborhood association for the first time, all very nice people, but not the type of cultural experience I wanted for us–I felt like an oddball among such wealthy and semi-retired people with no children at home. I foresaw feeling awkward about sharing my home with friends because of my obvious privilege, rather than enjoyment of the perks of the gated life. I hated the message of the gate, though I understood its usefulness- don’t explore, camp, dump garbage here; we paid for this spot. And I could see myself being lonely way out there, especially as the kids started to go on their ways to university, college, work, travels. I’d miss my runs on the trails, walks down to the local coffee shops, random encounters with neighbors and friends living close by. And access to the pool was so easy for the kids and me. The prime time for a happy family home in the woods had passed.

We took up the possibility of adding on to our little house instead of buying another one. I used CAD to design a two bedroom, one bath addition with cozy library, my husband got ready to dig the hole for the slab, and then suddenly we dropped that plan too. We’d go back to house hunting, he decided–cheaper overall, and less hassle, and we’d built up some savings and a better income history. We went to open houses, had our realtor keep his eyes open, and searched online and across the county by car in our spare time for what turned out to be another impossible dream– a house on property that we could afford, that we both liked, and that was in the right spot to commute to the city and had a neighborhood I felt I could relate to. I brought my husband to the table three times to make low ball offers on fixer-uppers he thought were acceptable and I saw some magic in, but over a span of about five years, nothing. Instead, I was expanding my garden, with my husband’s help, no longer willing to wait for the dream garden property, under the guise of improving the attractions of out little place to future buyers. People are into raised beds and mature fruit trees, I reasoned. But in my heart, these became MY apple trees, MY blueberry bushes, and I was ready to settle down. We had lived in the place almost twenty years, after all, way past the average of seven before up sizing. Yes, it was a tighter fir than ever, and our teens were going out a lot to socialize in friends’ houses, struggling with covetousness at times, or finding their personal devices useful in making them feel spaced out.

The other factor was two were just about ready to head off to college, and the years would fly by, and soon we’d be empty nesters. Sure enough, in two years, we had some more space. Not to use for new purposes, because the bedrooms had to be kept, but relational space, at least. It wouldn’t be long, I said, and our house would be just the right size again, so I held the line. My husband, tractor parked in front of the Subaru in the driveway, still longed for a mini-farm. My longing was fading, along with my sense of the likelihood of our finding the place, and as my attachment to my nurtured soil, fruiting young trees, and plans for a rainwater harvesting system and bike shed grew. I quietly turned over another foot of lawn’s edge to convert to vegetables. My husband’s protest was out of habit only–his vision of playing touch football and croquet with the kids on an expanse of green lawn was fading. He even seemed to like my ideas for a writing studio/office extension on the tool shed. We replaced most of the fence, which was falling down, and build a retaining wall in the process, although my husband chose to view that as improving sales appeal. But then, I admitted that I would be okay with getting a hot tub–something he’d wanted long ago but we’d decided wan’t necessary, as the kids could swim at the pool down the road, and what time did we have in those days to hide away in a spa, anyway? Now the kids were grown, and they could enjoy it with us, or with their friends, and we had mid-life stresses to soak out. We installed oneon the windowless side of the house in a corner of the fenced area, and the house didn’t feel too small at all any more. The hot tub became our away room.

As it turned out, we all needed that spa. Not so much as a place to hang out together, but to get away and de-stress, calm down, process feelings, and shed tears. In the process of setting up the hot tub, my husband we fighting some kind of gut flue, it seemed, that didn’t o away. An herbal cleanse made it worse. There was something wrong. He finished installing the hot tub,  but was feeling so bad, with bloating, nausea, and sensitivity to smells, he didn’t want to try out the steaming, bubbling waters in case the bromine made him gag. During the process of seeking answers about his condition, cancer was suspected, and then it was confirmed though various scans and biopsies that he had through the diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Expected survival of three to six months. He started a super-healthy diet, and started a few medications, decided to stay away from the even greater discomforts, and uselessness for cure, of chemo. He also stayed out of the hut tub. For the rest of us, except my oldest son, who was away at college, it became our refuge. A soak in the steaming water that winter, looking up at the dark trees, the stars, feeling the cool rain, and sometimes, snowflakes, was so, so, soothing and healing.

I wanted my husband to enjoy it too, especially as he became more bedridden and butt sore. I urged him to see if he too found it comforting and soothing, promised to let the bromine dissipate, and finally, in he went. It was so good. For the next three months, he  soaked for a few hours several times a day, finding relief for his body as well as that sense of being enveloped in warmth that feels unspeakably comforting. Sometimes we’d soak together, not saying much, or just me chattering away about the kids, the garden, whatever.

To me the discussion about upsizing is irrelevant now. My husband still enjoys talking about the dream, even seems to plan on it–they tractor stays in the driveway, and he is ever hopeful. But now, it really is just a dream.

Our house is, if not perfect now, a home I see myself living in for a long time. The garden is my exercise, my useful work, and my interesting distraction between times of caring for my husband. There’s life, change, always a new season past and another one coming, but so much in the present every day. I planted sweet peas and sunflowers by our bedroom window where my husband can see and smell them, and each morning now I pick berries for his breakfast granola. Whether we, I ever make any more improvements has become less important, and the feeling of our mortality and the shortness of this life has made home mean something different to us all. All four children are home, even our oldest, who is in transition between graduating from college and having enough to get his own place. It’s way too early in my husband’s life for something like this to happen, but here we are in our little easy-care, nothing fancy, neighborhood house with a garden, all together, and life is good.

 

 

 
 

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Goodbye to the house with no driveway

I went to my bedroom earlier than usual this evening, disappointed over another property I was urged to let go of, and wanting to process this in writing, or maybe just to escape into a Father Brown episode. That kind of repeated disappointment deflates me like balloon. That’s what it felt like to send the email to let our realtor know that I did not need to view it tomorrow after all. Then I cried a little.

The little house, built in 1889 and a half hour’s walk from our current one, was well within our budget, and a potential investment as well as office and getaway/rental. But like the blue vinyl cafe (the one I sort of fell for a few weeks ago), it just isn’t the one for us, apparently, because who wants a house without a driveway, or one where a driveway, if deemed allowable despite the designation of the hillside as critical area, would require a geo-engineer to sign off for permitting?

I say, if the old lady who lived there since the ’60s didn’t need a driveway, that neither do we. I say, I’ll just bike up the hill with the salt, cheese, and coffee, and let the food come from the soil and the henhouse. I like the idea of no driveway–a real paradigm-shifter whose time has come. But banks do not agree, as they have to be concerned with a quick sale should the buyer default on their payments, and partially paved paradise seems to be part of the preferred package.

The house had a bow window facing south with a view of the mountains, overgrown fruit trees, evergreens and bird habitat, all on a third of an acre. Just up from one of our favorite walking streets, for its funky, friendly, neighborly feel and abundance of trees and gardens. My daughter and I dreamed ourselves in it–an office for the business, and she and her older brother living there and keeping it up, and sharing the place with a third roommate to help pay the mortgage. It had a porch nestled up against a pine tree for shelter from the rain and head, for conversations. My daughter lit up when she realized that there, she could have a cat, safe from the Siberian husky we have at home. The house was old, and she hoped it had that “old” smell. The carpets in the downstairs bedrooms were shag in primary colors–in the photos, the south light streaming in the windows onto them made it look like a college party was in progress.

It was not the dream house, not the dream property. Whatever that is, anymore, besides impossible to agree on–too many variables. But I thought, why not just buy something small, a fixer-upper, for casual use and let it appreciate ($30,000 up in assessed value over the four years isn’t bad), knock around the house and property for fun? Seems better than putting more money into an IRA invested in the stock market. Real estate is real. You can plant a garden there, and come in from the rain. Frankly, I don’t believe my mate will ever be ready to take the big step of buying a more expensive place to replace the one we own now. Every time we have come close, he realizes how much risk we’re taking on, when as a contractor, his job could go away next week. Puts a damper on most dreams–a reality check. I get that–I don’t want him to be tied to a commute and high-stress work that he no longer has the heart for, and as a new teacher, I couldn’t afford it on my own.

We all need more space, and the idea of a project (not too big or urgent, or involving living in the garage or under a canopy on the patio–this time) excites us. That blue vinyl-sided house from a few weeks ago could have been an office and rental, even a little coffee house for locals (another dream I had). I’d help the kids at the nearby elementary school with their garden, and buy what they grew for my salad specials, let them meet their math tutors and mentors over home grown mint tea, on the house. There were several outbuildings for workshops and other uses. A finished attic for office space. But its sale was already pending, and it’s one now.

I suppose I can see this process of wanting, planning, dreaming, the letting go as a kind of growth opportunity, or a process to clarify our priorities. So I do, but my priorities haven’t changed, though my circumstances have. I want sunlight, neighbors, a kind of homey, old, Charlie Brown Christmas tree house that I can nurture and not be out-classed by, some land for a garden, space to work with tools and materials, both indoors and outdoors. Room for visitors, this time, would be nice, but with the four kids grown or almost grown, that will be a given most of the time.

I want a kitchen table without a wall looming so close over the table I leave it bare so it won’t look even smaller. I want a house with the TV way out back or downstairs or even in a separate building, not in the living room, the only other place to sit inside other than at the kitchen table (with the wall looming).

So I drink my turmeric tea, listen to the quiet slosh of the dishwasher and some drops of rain splattering from the trees onto the stove vent hood on the roof. The bread is rising for the buns I’ll bake tomorrow for Thanksgiving. My daughter and her friend helped knead while I made up some coleslaw from the two cabbages I cut this week. We’ll drive south to join nine other family members on my husband’s side. There are three new babies in the family, and all my sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, and mother- and father-in law are well. My parents, brothers, and sisters are all doing okay too, too, though I see them seldom. My husband and four children are healthy, and successfully navigating life. Who’s to say whether I should be wanting anything? Still, next week I’ll call the back and get another pre-approval for a loan, just in case.

 

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Ten things I don’t want to read in real estate listings

I just read a listing that had at least five of these irritating, misleading, or otherwise off-putting descriptions. I know the list would be different for others, but here’s mine:

10. Wide open plan

If I lived by myself, I might like to keep an eye on the kitchen while I’m kicking back by the fire or working in my office nook. But with a family of six, how is a person to carry on a private conversation, with meaningful hand signals? And I don’t want to to be faced with the mess some snacking teen made in the kitchen while I’m trying to work on lesson plans at the dining table. Give me a few different sizes of rooms with walls between, mostly with doors, some locking. Then getting together for meals or conversation is a special event, not an obligation.

9. Exclusive

Makes me feel excluded, which I find very triggering. Or, if it’s only exclusive of burglars, then “security system” would be a better choice of words.

8. Soaring (vaulted) ceilings

I don’t want to soar in my own home, or hang large chandeliers, or even seagull mobiles. For that feeling, I go to a cathedral, an airport, or a gymnasium. Lots of things need to soar there. In a house it just creates a draft through wasted space, with occasional shafts of dust-filled light stabbing through.

7. Immaculate

What does that have to do with anything, except the price of housekeeping, landscaping, and power washing services, plus a good home stager? I’m not buying those. Or did you mean morally immaculate?

6. Stunning

This is not a positive emotion to have about a house, its grounds, or the price. Trust me, I know.

5. Over sized

Oops–you built it too big to be practical or comfortable, so I can see why you want to sell it. Too hard to heat, to clean, or to locate your cell phone, family members, or pets in. But why turn off potential buyers before they even take a look?

4. Be the envy of…

To tell you the truth, I think about this quality a lot. Except, it’s a test of whether I would be ashamed to live in a certain house, not whether it’s desirable. I don’t want to buy a property that would evoke sinfully covetous thoughts in others. I don’t want to be a symbol of  the inherent social inequity that can arise from being born into privilege or living a self-centered, materialistic life. I also don’t want to use my possessions to compensate for a deficient sense of self worth.

3. Minutes to everything

Two minutes to the on ramp and convenience store, or to the metal and glass recycling sorter services? Five hundred minutes to a grocery store or the nearest school? Really, that’s not even useful information.

2. One of a Kind

That’s just way too open to interpretation. It fits the underground concrete bunker, the condo designed for boarding stray cats, and the converted lunatic asylum.

1. Well appointed

Not because it isn’t a good, useful expression that replaces a longer one, but because I had to look it up to make sure it didn’t mean “fancy enough for doctors and lawyers to entertain in.”

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Landing at the landing – a room of my own

Here I am in my own little office, which the Master of the Universe has seen fit to provide me on such short notice. That is, when I was willing to do my part in a serious way, instead of just whining. It was a minimal part, if I don’t count all the mental and emotional preparation. All I did was look on Craigslist for something under a certain price of a certain size, and found a little artist studio on the wharf, to be vacated the next day by the local writer for the summer, terms casual and by trust, furnished and with a view of boats and a bit of harbor. I got the keys the next day from a man who reminded me of a slightly younger version of my father, also a writer of folk history.

I’m looking out at the forested hills of my town, university at ten o’clock, downtown seven o’clock, and a 360 degree foreground of dry docked boats, cranes, and shipping containers, with the demolished pulp and paper plant, a sliver of bay, and islands behind that. Seagulls and the clinking of cables against masts penetrate the silence of my nest. Out in the hall a little old tea table has been set on the worn carpet, where young artists have lined the walls with their work. All for under $200 a month, and I am told it is safe but just keep the front door locked so the homeless won’t camp in the downstairs lounge, because we can’t always tell them from the tenants.

I didn’t even know the place was here–just another dead end off the main, but now I have a key and a parking space. The regular tenant has placed a recliner on a pedestal behind the desk for better viewing of the scenery. I took a nap there yesterday.

I didn’t get the job that opened up at my school for next year. Full time, at least four preps biology, a second science, and two electives–a very heavy load, but that’s how it is at a small school, especially for new teachers.

At first I took it well. The principal was kind and affirming in telling me, and I had prepared myself with the understanding that they really wanted a more technical person, who could teach robotics and programming–that’s the drive now, where the money is, and does interest most students more than biology and environmental science. So that was best for the students, after all. I also was concerned about the many preps–two being a lot of work, let alone four or five. I would probably have taught health/nutrition, and offered a number of others as possibilities–a course of real life living skills that used to be known as home economics, a marine biology, horticulture, animal physiology.I was prepared to work several hours a day all summer to lay out the plans. I love that kind of work, truly energizing and a good use of my background and talents.

But they found just the person they needed, with career and technical (CTE) certification and robotics experience, and so I am free. I’m happy to have most of a year’s extra experience in the classroom, at this school in particular, with all the training in project based learning (PBL) and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

The next day our offer on a house we, I especially, had hoped to buy, fell through. The owner is still over valuing it for its condition, so we let it go. “Just be patient,” said our realtor, “The right house will come along.” She felt it was a wise decision, which really is a credit to her, who has been on this journey with us for over a year without any sign of impatience herself at no commission.

So I’m grieving both losses, even as I am glad to have my new office, eat fresh spinach from my garden and see the apples swell on my young trees, see the kids all getting along reasonable well though cramped in our little house without enough beds or dressers. And we all have our health.

I warned my husband, half jokingly, that if we weren’t buying a house yet, I would have to take steps to improve the space we are in now, treat it as if it were long term, because it was always turning out that way, though we were still using hand me down and second hand furniture. He felt for me, knowing I have wanted to either add on or move for years, and something always prevents that. I’m trying to embrace the opportunity to grow from it, and grow closer to him rather than the “dream.” I also choose acknowledge my need to switch things up, though in more subtle ways—a color update for the living room, perhaps, or on the more ambitious side, an addition of a bike garage so I can get a commuter and keep it out of the weather.

I feel superfluous. From my education system, from my home, from the decision making framework about my home. I know it’s just a way of thinking, and could lead me into actually being superfluous. Mindset and vision and positive action being the thing, as I try to teach my life-weary students. Yes, you can make a difference! You must, the alternative, as I said before, being to horrible to contemplate. And so the teacher must learn to be the free agent she urges her students to be, master of my fate, in charge of my choices, informed by feelings and circumstances, not controlled. Don’t you think?

 

 

 

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Bright Friday

This coffee shop reeks of pungent soap suds as the floor gets mopped. I think that was going on last time I came here, too–3000 miles ago on the odometer. I commented on it then too, hoping this customer could always be taken as right, and they’d buy some less offensive soap. Still, the shop also reeks of humanity, and intelligent good humor. Every time I sit here clicking away at the keyboard as the techs renew my Honda’s fluids, that strikes me—that the customers (and their dogs) are called by name, news is exchanged in specific terms, the baristas don’t deal in the fluffy generic “how’s your day going,…(consulting credit card)…Bill?” hoping he’ll just be glad to get a friendly glance from those long lashes and leave a nice tip. A young man with Down’s whom they know from down the road comes in for some signatures, and is treated as neighborly as anyone could wish.

Savoring the clear skies and winter sunshine, trying to envision living in that house on acreage. Today we laid out a print of the aerial view and sketched over it on tracing paper what would have to be fenced for the dogs, the garden, the future livestock, where the shop and barn would go. My husband wants a donkey, like the one we saw being chased around a pasture by bigger cousins the other day on our walk. I’d like to raise a dairy animal or two, an annual beef steer, and chickens for eggs and meat.There’s lots of room for space-loving crops like corn, pumpkins, dry beans and green manure crops, as well as a handy kitchen garden.

This is the stage where it would be painful to hear that the house was under offer by someone else, so we should probably limit such specific planning, or put our money on the table. The conversation has become more balanced and peaceful, as we consider what would be getting traded–this for that, the possibility of these for the certainly of those, and so on. Our youngest son is all for it, oldest two are open, and younger daughter is the only one who pipes in to object—citing her beliefs that this or that unpleasant consequence are sure to follow, that it will not be an improvement. The three years until she graduates seem so long to her, the prospect of one year having to commute to her high school, or switch, so significant. But she has the most to gain, we think—the house is a few blocks from the community college where she’ll spend two years and also from the barn where she rides almost daily. We listen, acknowledge that change is always hard and that this will be no different, but subtly communicate that this is about our long term plan as a family, and that everything will work out for her. I think she’s reliving her childhood memories of the stress she went through when we moved to Israel, and forgets that this would be a comparatively mild transition.

Out there there is a frantic day of shopping going on, but this coffee shop is away from all that. Sure is nice not to receive the local paper on this day in particular. No one has managed to communicate the urgency to us this year of hitting the sales. Seems, and this could just be an effect of the lack of ad flyers–that the Black Friday idea is losing appeal, as people realize that if they don’t shop now, they can always watch for a sale later, or even make presents of give Heifer International livestock to families trying to make a living in some tougher part of the world. Or that they don’t really need anything much anyway. Is that why all the car ads today promise up to thousands in “cash back”? Really? Is that what it takes now?

Still, sometimes I feel that irrational urge to buy, the call of the sparkling new things that just might brighten my life, make someone else cheer up, symbolize some kind of renewal as the days get darker, or tide me over the darkest. I manage to pass by the exit into the local Fred Meyer, as the sky glows with its last golden light behind the blink of red tail lights and green for go. Picturing the snow about to fall. It’s definitely a season-induced feeling. The catalogs are arriving, the UPS trucks stop and go around the neighborhood more frequently, and at home I do my best to resist the urge to shop online. Maybe just a little, since Amazon will set aside a certain percentage for my chosen school… Now that’s what it takes.

 

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2015 in Culture & Society, Places & Experiences

 

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Friday through Sunday as the world turns

I finished out the week with a half day subbing with 7th and 8th graders, starting each class with a solid fifteen minutes of silent reading, then supporting them as they worked on stuff, the first being a reading evaluation, which I figured was some sort of response to what they were reading, but turned out to be a self evaluation rubric on which they ranked their attitudes and proficiency and several other aspects of their reading. That irked me somewhat—another item that I’d be tempted to forego, if it were me teaching, or against the negative effects of which I’d try to immunize them. There was a wee box for their comments on what they were currently reading, which might have some merit, I suppose, if used in some way to deepen their experience. As we finished up the last minute of reading, I asked them, on a whim, to trade books with someone at their table and take a few minutes’ taste of someone else’s literary diet. The boy who worked through a few sentences of my Aldous Huxley novel labored with a perplexed expression.

Tutored for an hour in geometry, with some conversation about “Much Ado about Nothing” and grammar review, then home for supper, picked up some apples fallen from the tree in the back yard, cut some for drying and made a jug of cider. That’s become an evening ritual before bed time–the hum of the juicer and the repetitive motions, sometimes with the companionship and assistance of my twelve year old, is pleasant after a busy day among the young.

Saturday morning I joined a biology/chemistry teacher colleague and helped her get caught up in grading, for which she compensated me, saying it was money well spent for the mental health improvement it provided her. We worked five hours straight, going through three classes of lab books, three lab write ups per student, and poster projects, reading, scoring, adjusting expectations for students with I.E.P’s, taking breaks for tea, fruit, and pastries. So wise, I told her, to ask for help instead of feeling the ever increasing weight of that burden, and knowing students needed to get the feedback before the opportunity to improve the next time around had gone. She’d just changed schools and was using a completely new curriculum, which was being fed to her in chunks with not much lead time, so that tests would come up–with all teachers giving the same one, for which she hadn’t been able to adequately teach all the concepts. At her previous school all the science teachers had been autonomous, though of course sharing materials and a common set of core concepts. Also at the new school there were half the number of long class periods, and the pace was so fast there wasn’t much opportunity for review or to go deeper with concepts and application. Still, she said, “It is what it is, and I’ll learn it.” She has such a desire to serve these students, including a large number of special needs students–nine in one of her class periods!–who learn differently, have limited capacity, or have communication problems. Had to plead for extra support, got some by having the assistant principal observe what was going on in the classroom. I told her I appreciated the work, but had also gained just hanging out with her and hearing her perspective.

She also told me the story of how she had been hired for an additional half time of biology position the previous year at the other school, at the tail end of my subbing for a sick teacher for several weeks, how she had pleaded with the higher ups to hire me for the opening, that she didn’t want the job at substitute rate and I would do a great job. She said they kept calling and texting her until she said she would only take the job if she got the curriculum rate, and so consented and she couldn’t refuse. She said that’s how it works–it’s still cheaper in the long run, and less bother for them, to hire a teacher already in the system than go through all the process to hire someone new. Gave me an idea of the activation energy, the startup costs, in other words, that keep new teachers out of the loop, until demand gets high enough. It was encouraging to hear how she had rooted for me.

That evening I took a few hours to finally watch the presidential candidate debates, was so energized by Bernie Sanders, as was my husband, who rolled up a chair to join me at the computer. We even decided to donate to his campaign, and I started thinking again about going through the citizenship process, just so I could vote for him–that would be four of us. Surprised to read the next day that commentators were declaring Hillary the winner of the debate, but then my son told me that CNN is owned by a company that donates to her campaign. As Bernie said, it will have to be about millions of people coming together to counter the billions of dollars coming from the PACs.

Final item for the weekend was to take a second look at a house that has shown the most promise of satisfying all our main requirements for a new home–not too big to retire in, not too small to fit us all now, a second story of some kind, several acres of land, privacy, garage and shop, a quality, artful house with character and no major work to be done, good enough location, and a decent price. The three kids that live with us all approve, though the oldest said she finally loved her (adapted garage) bedroom and now would have to share or have a smaller space (only for part of a year). My oldest son, away at college now, weighed in that he’d rather come home to a different house than come back to the old one painted a new color he didn’t like (not cheerful enough). Which I thought was interesting–I’d been concerned he’d feel that the rug had been pulled out from under him with this deal. Still lots of conversations to be had–what rooms would be used for what, which would be temporary bedrooms when the kids were home for the season or we had visitors, where all our books, now in storage, would go, where I’d do my sewing, whether the much smaller kitchen was adequate, and where the barn, with a welding area and foundry, would go. And how to do the money thing–sell our house, or take a risk with a bigger loan and make it a rental to preserve as a retirement investment. Our realtor advised us to consider that rather than selling, which is a credit to her integrity and good will, since she’d lose revenue by that option.

Down side is that it’s not easy to bike or walk that busy road and the ones it’s connected to, no fence yet to keep in the dogs, and the small kitchen. But somehow, as I just love the house, and know how rare such a thing is, having kept my eyes open for years, those things just don’t seem to matter.

 

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“His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.”

Another Saturday, another house for sale to view. I scheduled this one, not with a lot of hope that it was “the one,” but only that it fit certain criteria–enough room, in our current school zone, close enough to the freeway, and near some natural areas. I convinced my husband and all but one daughter, who had a riding session, to give it a look.

It was pouring, and any house that could look good on such a day would be worth considering. The realtor met us on the porch and warned us that the tenants were there, with all five children and a dog. I thought they were the owners, so figured they’d be somewhat glad to have us look at least, but they were only renting, so it must have been an uncomfortable invasion. Were the owners selling it against their wishes? And here we were walking into all the rooms, with or without children and busy parents, looking in and out of doors and windows. It was uncomfortable. But I understood the difficulty of transporting five young ones somewhere on a rainy day for just an hour on a Saturday afternoon.

There was kitsch Jesus art on the walls. My daughter counted three. And nice family values quotes and hangings, cases full of mainstream Christian best sellers. Still, I liked the house–three whole stories with an unfinished basement and unfinished office space over the garage. But all stacked one on top of the other so there was no central place for the whole family or more to hang out. Also, the house was backed up pretty close to the next one, despite the half acre lot. The half acre was a poor compromise between our present third of an acre and the five or more on which we hoped to keep horses. There was southern exposure, but partially blocked by huge evergreens, which blocked the busy road, so not feasible to remove them.

It was a thumbs down, again. Some of us could picture living there, but most not at all.

There must be something for us out there, but we’ve been searching the web and exploring the county for months (as we did several years ago, unsuccessfully) and the same properties keep coming up, all with issues and nothing just right that we can afford. And, my husband reminded me, we have to finish off our own house so it’s rent- or sale-ready anyway, and that will take a few months. Still cabinets, trim, fencing and interior doors missing. I got quotes, and now have to follow up–got to get on that again this week. Yes, we could sell as is, but we’d really like to keep it as a rental/investment, possibly to downsize back into in ten years or so. We’d only sell it for a really good great place we could live in long term.

We could also remodel. We’ve renovated inside the envelope a good deal, but it could be time to add on. I’ve already designed an addition that would greatly expand living space, and we could do some of the work ourselves. But before we committed to acting on the plan (but after we’d dismantled part of the fence on that side), we decided to look at the market again.

My husband asked what is it I really want, or would want if I hadn’t anyone else to consider. But I told him I really couldn’t answer that, couldn’t imagine being happy where things weren’t right for all of us, or at least a good compromise all around. I feel like I’m the easiest one to please, but I suppose any one of us could say that. We each have only a few criteria, but they’re hard to overlap with reality. To consider also are the inevitable changes we can expect over time in our needs. Each child will be changing schools in one to three years, starting to move out most likely in two to eight years, and two probably not wanting to keep horses in three to five years. My husband may find a good job nearer home, I should be going back to work in one of the local school districts in two years or less, and there will be fewer people with less time at home who could take care of a mini-farm anyway.

I wish someone could help us develop an algorithm for this. Each person’s criteria entered, with formulae for changes over time, level of priority, exclusions and additions in special cases. and so on.

There also the possibility of hanging tight where we are. Seems I’m the only one who’s not okay with that. Something about not having any sort of space of my own for creative pursuits indoors, and not having permission to purge lots of other people’s unused possessions (I have purged and continue to purge my own) so we have room to flex inside this small space for the next few years. In the summer, it’s livable, but come fall rains, I feel very cramped, like we’re too many rats in a cage. It’s definitely not big enough to host visitors for any length of time, and I have regretted that.

Not that I want a mansion, even if we could afford it. I’d actually be ashamed of owning a megahouse, even if it weren’t for the trouble of taking care of it and paying high taxes. Unless we turned it into a retreat center, bed-and-breakfast or shelter.

Meanwhile we’ll keep saving from the paychecks and keeping our eyes open. And I’ll keep working on my attitude, trying to cultivate patience, contentment, thankfulness, and hope, as well as wisdom.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2013 in Places & Experiences

 

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Expansion and contraction of the universe of our domestic hopes

It seemed so right–house at a foreclosure price, out in the country, price dropped twice. Five bedrooms–one for each kid as well as a nice one for the masters of the house; enough room to finally have the family at our house for holidays; ten acres for the barn and horses the daughters longed for and for my sheep dairying trial; several decent-looking neighbor houses within strolling distance for egg-borrowing and possible deep friendships; a good commuting base for my husband (saving him fifteen minutes each way); good light for gardening, and no silly, expensive landscaping or fancy driveway added into the price. Finished within an inch of its life before the money ran out, so we’d get a break from sweat equity. Lots of trees, but not the kind that it would break my heart to clear for pasture;  same schools for the children. All the top requirements that were so hard to meet in one property.

Downsides seemed acceptable–ugly from the back, driveway that occupied the best gardening location, and an overly domineering garage door. Land that needed work, no outbuildings or fence. Drives to town activities ten minutes longer each way. But that would only be for a few more years, we told ourselves. Okay, maybe ten, but there would be sibling drivers to pitch in very soon, and college would be happening, and it wouldn’t matter as much.

The day before the viewing, our agent emailed us saying that the listing agent was wrong, and that the school demarcation put the household children in the next county’s district. Possibly negotiable, we thought. But when the agent met us at the house, she showed us the lot map, and my hopes dimmed. The developer had given the house its building site and a narrow strip heading down the valley, over the stream, and up the other side practically to the freeway. Not much hope of space for pasture before meeting wetland, and a weird shape for a homestead. For me that was it. Still, in we went, the younger children eager, unaware of any new reservations we had, dutifully removing their shoes.

It was clean, neutral, with a nice kitchen and lots of space, though with several of the soaring ceilings I tend to mentally split horizontally in order to create cool little lofts. I half-heartedly tried the closet doors, sketched the layout, looked out the windows, and listened to the agent answering my husband’s questions. My oldest son had already sunk to a seat on one of the two staircases and started fooling around with his smart phone  to escape the dread he felt at being so far from his friends, work, and school. And the hurt at my not wanting to hear him express it again.The other three were scurrying around upstairs, eager for me to come see the bedrooms they had already staked out for each family member. It had been a while since we’d viewed the inside of a house for sale, and they had become utterly captivated by the thought of living there. I warned them that there were problems, and that there were many lovely houses they would like as well (if we could compromise on certain requirements).

We left with the plan of double checking the property lines and land use restrictions as well as contacting our school district to see what could be worked out. I felt exhausted on the way home, not wanting to talk or listen. I felt stuck–here we are again, in a 1260 square foot house, unwilling to add on when we might find the right home, unable to settle as a family on what we do find. My husband was still mourning the last chance on a rare in-town house with acreage we looked at over a year before, which we couldn’t afford anyway at the time. I was wishing we could look further north where we knew all the good, affordable acreage properties were. All of us dreamed of the day that yellow farmhouse on the hill above the south end of town would go up for sale.

That evening I drove up past the yellow house on the hill, and back again to supper. I had written down the number on the mailbox that looked right, again. It couldn’t hurt to write a letter of inquiry, after all–something I’d meant to do for a long time. Perhaps the long-time owners are only waiting for the right type of people–people who will love the classic house, use the pasture for grazing, not sub-divide in their lifetime. People tell me no one thinks that way any more, that everyone just wants top dollar and will subdivide if the option is there. Still, no harm in trying. I’ll start the letter tomorrow morning.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2013 in Places & Experiences

 

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In search of the dream home: Seven acres and a mule, is it? An acre and independence? The good life?

In search of the dream home: Seven acres and a mule, is it? An acre and independence? The good life?

What was your home search like? How was the spousal communication? Were there children whose particular needs and aspirations entered into the mix? Other family? Did you get good help from a realtor? What about deadlocks, and how did you get through them? Did you have to sacrifice something for a down payment? Land for more bedrooms? a view for a shop? Or did you fall in love with a plot of land and decide to build?

Our first home purchase was relatively simple, though we didn’t realize it at the time, ’cause it was the first time, and the big time for us, having lived with family our first two years of marriage, and apartments before that. Even owning a car was a step up for me, having always biked or bussed to school and work. For me the concept was a real mind-blower, to actually own a house. All I’d had to that point was enough to pay for the basics, plus the last of the student loan, and where I come from, a steady income was hard to come by. Yet I always pictured myself in a place of my own, somewhere to set up in and out, put in some fruit trees and so on. Like the place I grew up in.

The first realtor drove us through the cheap but semi-gentile parts of town, showed us what we could afford, not much over $100K. I was easy, and didn’t know any better, was charmed by all the front doors, run-down potential, the idea of having my very own neighbors and a kitchen. But my husband was wiser, felt she was aiming low, so we switched to another realtor, brother of a trusted friend. He helped us figure out our A-list, and got an early line on a fixer-upper barely listed, in a nice green neighborhood. Big fenced yard, starter size, good bones, and “sought after” neighborhood. Not much character–just a ’50s single story ranch, 1260 square feet with no basement. Not the dream house, but plenty of room for us and our little son. We were in within a few months, with a first mortgage. We could barely afford the payments for the first few years, but times got better in software, my man got a company going, and soon we were able to pay the house off and then save for the real dream home. I wanted sun, and lots of it–only vegetable gardeners know how many hours a day that really means. He wanted mountains, trees, and a view, close enough to the freeway for a decent commute. I wasn’t sure those two sets of criteria were compatible, and every time we headed out to the mountain/coast area he loved, all the towering trees just felt oppressive to my Nova Scotia sensibilities. But I hoped for the best, and prayed.

Meanwhile we improved our little ranch-style house–closed in the carport, replaced windows, laid donated carpet over the unfinished floor, installed new kitchen cabinets and flooring. We intended to sell eventually, so we didn’t enlarge, or personalize much. We turned over sod for a big garden, but didn’t plant fruit trees or build a greenhouse. And we kept going back to the house listings periodically. Meanwhile, our second and third child were born, and soon we were feeling cramped. Was it standard American middle class expectations, too much stuff, other kinds of family stress, or did we really need more space? So easy to want, don’t you know, and most of our friends affirmed our desire more space. A few, mostly older folks, said they’d done fine in a small house and we could too. I got creative with organization and kid spaces, planted an apple tree and two more blueberry bushes.

On our own, after poking around along the scenic route again, we found what we thought was the dream–twenty acres of wooded hillside overlooking the Puget Sound, facing full south. A cleared building site, great sun exposure, seasonal creek hidden at the back and decked with clumps of sword ferns and old growth stumps, gorgeous view of the Sound, on a dead end driveway. We bought it, and started making plans and improvements in our spare time. There wasn’t much of that, because–you know how it is–one either has time or money, and my husband was commuting long hours and working long hours, and I was taking care of the house and our three little ones, fourth on the way, as well as doing the business bookkeeping. We brought in soil for a garden, set up a comfortable campsite, made trails, laid a pad for a cabin, worked on the house plans, couldn’t agree, got into tangles over size, details, and whether it was just plain too stressful on our family to build a house. I had heard enough stories from realtors about dream homes built and abandoned because of marital conflict, and wondered if we could handle such a project taking over several years of our lives. Then there would be the jump in property tax from $35 to perhaps over $8000 a year for a nice view home. I put my foot down and we let go of building the dream home for the season. We had some wonderful camping (complete with running water from the well and electricity from the hookup) and birthday party bonfires. We kept looking around half-heartedly for a ready-made, but nothing seemed good enough for the prices. Those were the years of the real estate bubble.

It’s a good thing we did not buy a house, or we would have lost much of its value in 2008-2009. But how I wish I’d planted a whole apple orchard at home, because sixteen years after moving in, we are still in our little ranch, and it has shrunk. First we lost the extra bedroom. Then the sewing room. Eventually all three bedrooms were shared, and the kids kept growing. Two sets of bunk beds were essential, two dressers were a problem. And one bathroom was causing periodic bouts of panic and tension. A year overseas in a four bedroom, two bathroom apartment larger than our house gave some respite, a remodel after that added a bathroom and opened out the main house, I refinished the oak floors, and my husband divided off a bedroom in the garage (which has never really been a garage) for a big bedroom for the girls.

Now we are moving into range of the first launch into college of one of our kids, and are asking ourselves if we should just wait instead of getting a bigger house and later feeling it’s too big of an empty nest. But we also have two daughters with a sustained interest in owning horses, and my husband and I still dream of running a small scale farm. I want to grow more food staples like grains and beans, try sheep dairying, and have enough room for sewing and other creative projects. We both want a woodworking shop. We still have a good eight to ten years of children living with us, and who knows, maybe in-laws will live with us. In any case, we agree that 1260 square feet, even with a garage bedroom added, will not do.

Met with a realtor a few weeks ago to explain our desires and dilemmas, and so she could read between the lines, discern the challenge that we represent, with our overlapping and diverging hopes for the house, and four children with dreams and opinions of their own. Would she take the case? Yes, she was part psychiatrist, she said. We’re hoping she can help us sort  through all the primordial soup of our dreams, which have an edge of practicality and urgency now, and help us find what we’re looking for. Meanwhile, we’re saving for 20% down.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2013 in Places & Experiences

 

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