I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Five decades ago:

I lived in my parents’ house. I had the little room that was once a sleeping porch. I slept with the big Teddy bear I got for my fifth (fourth? sixth?) birthday. At the end of July 1970, I was just over a month out from meeting a girl I shall call A, who was my best friend for the rest of grade school. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I liked climbing trees.

Four decades ago:

I lived in my parents’ house. I had a larger room at the back of the house. I slept with my cat, a grumpy orange tabby. Lady Maud was among my best friends, though I probably spent more time talking to another girl in our group, B. I was getting into cycling because my boyfriend was an avid cyclist. I was about a month out from starting college. I wanted to be an archeologist, and was planning a special major that I thought would prepare me for that career.

Three decades ago:
I lived in a studio apartment in Grad School Town, probably the nicest place I’d lived in my life up to that point: it was in the basement of a split-level house, so somewhat dark, but everything was in good repair, and there were nice built-in bookcases and desk that the landlord had built. I had great landlords. I slept with my tabby cat, who had been my boyfriend’s cat until I fed her for long enough, and sometimes with my boyfriend. I liked living alone, and had been doing it for a year, after the boyfriend and I decided not to live together any longer. In a month or so, I would meet two women, C and D, who would become close friends; for the moment, however, my best friends were still Lady Maud, Queen Joan, and Sir David (no point in disguising that name: 80% of the men of my generation are named David, Michael, or Eric/k). I wanted to be an English professor when I finished my graduate work. I hadn’t seen my parents for three years. I swam two or three miles a week in a campus pool, besides walking up and down hills a lot.

Two decades ago:
I lived in my third-floor walk-up condo, with windows on east, south and west giving floods of light, though it got very hot in summer. I slept with the same tabby cat, and sometimes with Sir John. In the summer we more often slept at his place, which had central air conditioning (and a different tabby cat). I spent a lot of time on the phone with C and D, junior professors at schools where they were not very happy. Both of them were ultimately to leave “the profession,” one pre- and one post-tenure. I liked living alone, but hoped to move in with Sir John full-time before too much longer. I was a recently-tenured English professor. Some health problems were interfering with research. I probably visited my parents (both of them) that summer, though I don’t recall exactly when. I swam a couple of miles a week at the YMCA, and also worked out on machines there.

A decade ago:

Sir John and I, now married, lived in our townhouse with five cats (the Shakespearean Heroine, the Scot, the Grammarian, the Tiny Cat [all now deceased], and a very young Basement Cat). I slept with Sir John and whatever cats wanted to join us; sometimes I woke up pinned between the Scot and the Shakespearean Heroine. D had just become an American citizen; the ceremony was one of the last times I would see her, and may be the last time I saw her on her (new) home ground. I had met E a couple of years previously, but we hadn’t yet embarked on the Huge Honking Translation project. I was still an associate professor, at the same school. I was getting back to research, feeling a bit anxious about my position in the field and my ability to work, but I had recently returned from a productive research trip to the UK. I’d also traveled to see my father that summer, my mother having died in the intervening decade. I swam and worked out at a fairly swanky gym.

Now:

I live in a split-level house in the suburbs, with three cats (it does remind me, pleasantly, of the house where my grad school apartment was). I sleep with Sir John and Basement Cat, who comes to bed with us so that Glendower can pick at his food overnight. A and I are intermittently back in touch; she teaches third grade in the town where we grew up. Occasionally I hear from C, who is working on yet another master’s degree. I long ago lost touch with B, while D and I deliberately parted company when we ceased to have many shared interests. I am a full professor. Some days, research still seems like a struggle, but I am considerably more confident in my ability to get back to it, and I have published a respectable amount in the past decade. At present a lot of my work time goes into preparing to teach online in the fall. I walk 2-3 miles every morning, and work out with light dumbbells at home; the local pools are closed because of COVID-19.

Looking back in these big swoops of time, it’s curious what shows up and what drops out. I can suppress the six years we spent in the house that was too big, too old, too much work. My entire undergraduate career drops out of the picture, as does my first rented apartment in TT-ville, perhaps appropriately as I tend to forget that I lived there. But all the cats of my life pop up. Day to day, and even year to year, I feel like my life doesn’t change much. I’ve had the same job for going on 30 years. I’ve been with Sir John for more than two decades. I’m something of an exercise addict.

In ten years’ time, though, things do change. At no point did I foresee a pandemic (so I think now: but C says I used to claim we were overdue for one), but twenty years ago I wouldn’t have predicted my 2010 life, either. I haven’t mentioned the people I work(ed) with; colleagues and office staff have changed, though I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the year for most of them, without the diaries that are still in storage. But they do make a difference. Twenty years ago, my department was much heavier on older men than it is now, and I looked young enough that I had to put a lot of energy into establishing and maintaining my authority in the classroom. Now I can let my grey hair do a lot of the work for me.

Maybe I’ll do another look-back-the-decades in two or three or five years, and see whether looking at different points (college; a sabbatical year; living in the Too Old House) changes my perspective.

What was your life like, ten and twenty years ago? (Or more: I make no assumptions about my readers’ ages.)

What urban soul?

Apparently, all I need to trigger a sense of home is hills and hemlock trees. The new house is in a town that has hills (this is a big deal in my part of the midwest) and lots of evergreens among the deciduous trees, including hemlocks. From my front door, I see two hemlocks silhouetted against the sky, and they make me feel so peaceful and happy. Despite the vile heat and humidity, suddenly I have no desire ever to move back to my home state, or to the one where much of my family live now. I don’t ever want to go anywhere again.

Well, I would like to go to the UK and visit some manuscripts. But apart from that, I’m fine right here.

Earlier this week, we went back to our former town to do some errands. It seemed like years since I’d been there, and very strange to think that I had lived there for so long. What was I thinking? Why didn’t I want to leave? I love the new house and the new town.

The enormous yard makes this place like living in a park. It’s tremendously relaxing to look outside and see so much green, and so little that has to do with other humans. We have squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, and probably other animals who are more nocturnal; I’m sure there are also deer, possums, raccoons, and either foxes or coyotes.

I’ve been looking up old posts on Clarissa’s blog because I recalled her making a similar transition when she bought a house surrounded by greenery. She went from liking concrete to preferring leaves. She felt like she’d become a completely different person. She could see herself in that house at 80. Well, maybe by 80 I’ll be ready to move somewhere with no stairs. But I’m amazed by how much at home I feel here. Clarissa is one of those bloggers I find interesting precisely because often we are so different, but on this topic it’s like we’re soul mates!

Maybe it’s because humans in general need to be exposed to nature a lot, and it’s good for us. I spent a lot of time outdoors at my old house, gardening, going for walks, shoveling snow (oh, you know what? if you don’t have sidewalks, you don’t have to shovel them), and there were plenty of trees and other green things to see from the windows. But this is a whole new level of nature, and it makes me feel like a whole new person.

To be sure, there’s a grocery store and other shops about a mile away, perfectly walkable, so it’s not the level of isolation that both my brothers have, which always makes me long to rush back to civilization. I’m not willing to drive ten miles to buy groceries, and I think my feelings on visiting family influenced my sense that I needed to be urban. But now I think the suburbs are a fabulous place to be (even though I don’t recognize myself). I feel like I get to spend the rest of my life on vacation.

The long nightmare is over

I no longer own a big, beautiful, old house.

I hope it’s the house of the new owners’ dreams; that they appreciate its beauties more than they mind its shortcomings; that they love the oak floors, the inlay in the floors around the fireplace, the gas fireplace itself with its marble surround, built-in bookcases to either side of the fireplace and in the room that was Sir John’s study, the light from its many windows (most of which we had to replace), the closet space, the outdoor fireplace and the garden. On the ground floor, some doors have clamshell hinges that were only made for a brief period around 1913-16, which is the sort of thing that appeals greatly to some people. The second floor is an addition from around 1990, so it has large rooms and big closets, as well as two more bathrooms.

Besides those things, it had a narrow, cramped entrance at the front, a chilly, awkward set of stairs at the back, bad traffic patterns and airflow (running the fireplace sent heat straight up the stairs, so that it heated the upper hallway, where the upstairs thermostat was located, keeping the heat from coming on and thus making the bedrooms freezing), and it had settled considerably over the years, making the floors and trim crooked to various degrees in different rooms. It had structural problems due to a badly done cathedral ceiling in the master bedroom, which we corrected, but the additional weight of the tie beams made the house settle a little more. Having grown up in an earthquake zone, I wasn’t bothered by this from a safety point of view, but aesthetically the crookedness irritated me, and Sir John couldn’t stop worrying that the house would fall down (since he hasn’t had the benefit of experience with condemned houses that I’ve had). The basement was dank, with cracks in the concrete that let in water during heavy rains. It flooded twice before the city replaced the storm sewers; after that, no more floods, but it was still damp. Some things stored there were ruined in the floods. Others just got musty from being down there. The garden turned out pretty well after I spent years digging out the creeping bellflower, but since it infests many other neighborhood gardens, it’ll be back unless the new owners are also vigilant.

Within about six months of moving in, we wanted to sell it. But Reasons meant we couldn’t get it on the market as fast as we hoped to, so we missed the top of the market. When we did put it on the market, it took three years to sell. In 2018, we had some viewers but no offers. In 2019, no one even came to look at it. In 2020, the first people to see it, bought it. Go figure. We sold for less than we paid for it, never mind all the work we did to it, but now we get to Move On.

The relief is profound. Modern suburbs, here I come!

An Academic Lady house-hunts, 8

Finding our range:

Agent sends us new set of links. Sir John and I both like the look of the first one. We make appointment to view it, and three others in same town.

Option one: split-level (not one of the standard models we’ve seen before), medium size, good layout, well-maintained. Nice tiled foyer, with closet. Attached garage. Neighborhood feels very rural: enormous yard, no sidewalk in front of house, mailbox across street. My urban soul quails.

Option two: split-level, quiet street very close to major highway (can hear traffic noise), strange fireplace open to three rooms on lower level—would have to fence it off to keep cats out of chimney. Skylights in dining room and kitchen. Am suspicious of skylights: nice idea, but potential for major problems there. Attached garage. Feel very iffy about this one.

Option three: ranch, a few blocks down street from option one. Yard even more enormous. Detached garage; driveway in bad shape. Sir John thinks recently added front porch looks very rural (not a plus). Nicely rehabbed and staged inside. Beautiful kitchen. Three bedrooms above ground. Entrance to living room, but with coat closet and space to use bookshelf or other furniture to create entry way. Odd bit at back, clearly once a porch, now enclosed, but in such a way that is basically enormous mud room, not really usable living space for us (might work for small children to ride tricycles in). Full basement . . . with standing water. Outside, mold or algae or something green is growing below windows of enclosed former porch. We’ll pass.

Option four: split-level, attached garage, once again with entrance to living room but with closet and could use furniture to create entry way. Sir John does not like screened front porch but I do. Yard manageable size. Three bedrooms up, family room and office down. Interior shutters, which we like. This one is rapidly moving to top of our list when I look up and see crack in ceiling, clearly already patched at least once and now re-splitting. Crack runs directly under center line of roof. Due to our past sad experience, house plummets from top of list.

 

Time to fish or cut bait: do we make offer on something we have seen, or start trying to find rental from which to continue searching?

Gentle reader, I will not keep you longer in suspense: we offer for Option One of this post.

(It reminds Sir John of house lived in by hot girl he dated in high school. Query: can I live up to associations? Answer: probably; he married me, not hot girl.)

Negotiations over dowry price not unduly protracted.

My urban soul is going to have to adapt itself to the suburbs.

An Academic Lady and the Suburbs

I’ve lived my life in cities large and small. I characterize the small ones as “small towns,” since I grew up in a major urban area, but I have to recognize that they are cities: population in the tens of thousands (low tens, but tens), choice of grocery stores, multiple stop lights, a hospital, county administration buildings, multiple restaurants and other amenities. They have downtown areas. Even Our Quaint Village is really a small city.

(Love reading about English villages. Do not consider self fit candidate for true small-town life, American-style.)

What I have always wished to avoid is the sort of suburban development with acres of houses built to two or three floor plans (maybe four or six if you allow for mirror reflection), with miles of lanes that spiral round culs-de-sac and parks but have only one or two outlets to actual roads that go somewhere, the sort of development in which a car is a necessity, and even then, driving takes you through miles of strip malls before you arrive at anything resembling a town center (probably two or three towns over). Bedroom communities. I had a friend in college who grew up in this sort of suburb. He said he once came home drunk from a party, went to bed, and woke the next day in the house two doors down from his, which had the same floor plan, and an empty bed in the room that corresponded to his.

We viewed our current too-old, too-big house when Sir John had just got to the point of suggesting extending that search to the suburbs, and I panicked. House does have its points, and it met most of our then-requirements (have learned we are Not Old-House People, full stop). He should have stressed shortening my commute as an inducement.

At any rate, when I caught on to that notion, and to the idea of living somewhere new(er)*, I started exploring some suburbs, and selected a few that had been towns in their own right before being swallowed by the encroaching city, places with downtowns.

Option one: high desirability had already driven prices beyond what we could afford.

Option two: a wider variety of price points, friends living there; discovered that affordable houses were all too small (adorable ranch #2), or too broken down (the Brothel, several of the fixer-uppers).

Option three: various possibilities including the one with gunk in the garret, the Gambling Den, the Dance Studio, the first adorable ranch, and possibly a few more that I have forgotten. We concentrated here for a few weeks, but as more houses came on the market and then were deemed unsuitable, we had to widen the search.

We could expand geographically, or we could consider suburbs not on my short list.

Geographical expansion would lengthen my commute again.

So we discovered the siblings of the Dance Studio, the Time Warp, the International Geophysical Year House, and . . . I forget what else. We went back to Town Option Two to look at a house in an excellent location. Large house, small yard, detached garage. Carpet over hardwood floors. Exposed brick in the foyer (very 70s) and also in the smallest bedroom (very WTF?). Evidence of structural problems in basement: nope.

Began to consider putting all our belongings in storage and moving into Sir John’s brother’s basement.

*I think I have read too many novels in which houses are an index to character. The characters one is supposed to admire live in beautiful, noble, old houses with hardwood floors, shabby rugs originally of excellent quality, and ancient windows; the characters mocked by the narrator live in modern concrete boxes with fitted carpets and all modern conveniences. OK, I’m a prole at heart, I admit it. Now can I have my comfortable modern box?

An Academic Lady is Picky about Houses

“Features” that are Not:

Vaulted/cathedral ceilings (put stress on walls).
Low water bills due to own well.
Fresh paint in hideous colors.
Hot tub.
Jets in master bath.
Bay windows (usually poorly installed, badly insulated, prone to damage).
Double sinks in bathrooms.
Farmhouse sink in kitchen.
Ceiling fans (I know most people like them but I hate being blown on).
Skylights.
Screened porches.
Close to schools (when this means next door, across street, or backing onto schoolyard).

 

An Academic Lady House-Hunts, 7

Bats in the Belfry, Mold in the Mind:

Large, attractive split-level. Excellent location, near station and with good highway access, within walking distance of Sir John’s mother, also of groceries, library, other amenities. Perhaps larger than we need, but room for studies, guest room, and storage (keep having to remind self that split-level generally means no proper basement). Make appointment to see house a second time, inspect carefully while wearing gloves, masks, liberally using hand sanitizer. Some windows new, some will need to be replaced. Minor damage to kitchen countertop. Too much carpet. Roof will also need to be replaced.

However, we have experienced removal of carpet and replacement of windows before. Roof at least external, replacement no doubt noisy but does not require moving furniture. We make offer, low to allow for work to be done.

Sellers drop their price by 5K and give laundry list of reasons house worth much more than we offered, including location (doubt they know how close they are to Sir John’s mother) and money recently spent on GFCI outlets, carpet cleaning, and mold abatement in the attic.

Wait, you said mold abatement?

We instruct our agent that we will not negotiate further.

Sellers get roofer to inspect their roof, send us report. Roof needs to be replaced within three years, bathroom fan vents improperly into attic. Source of mold thus revealed.

Am unable to understand why sellers don’t replace roof, then raise price of large, attractive house in desirable location.

Weeks later, house still on market; sellers have dropped asking price by $2500.

An Academic Lady House-Hunts, 6

The Time Warp:

(Does it seem like this series is going on forever? Try being the people hunting down a house during a pandemic with a closing date staring you in the face.)

Ranch house, built in 1980 but feels like 1950s. Layout reminds me of my parents’ last house. (NB, this means I can have no opinion of this house but must rely on Sir John’s judgment as engineer. Any house that reminds me of any familial dwelling warps my judgment, as proved by house we are moving from.) Two bedrooms near front of house would do for studies. Cathedral ceiling in living room and master bedroom: have learned to be wary of these, but there is no sign of cracking. Lower level enormous: rec room with wet bar, Coke machine, pinball machine, other amusements, plus office and storage.

Unfortunately, house is on heavily traveled road, no doubt once quiet country lane, but now sorely in need of a speed trap. Though urban at heart, do not care to have front door open onto major highway.

An Academic Lady House-Hunts, 5

The Adorable Ranches:

One: the first house we saw. Perfect: entry-way small but present; three small bedrooms; formal dining room behind kitchen; beautiful light and good traffic patterns. Attached garage. Semi-finished basement (no carpet). Even paint was attractive sunny pastels (pale banana-slug green oddly popular in this area; cannot understand it. Perhaps is due to local slugs being small and black rather than large and khaki-colored).

Deal-breaker: had own well and septic pit. I insist on water and sewer being the city’s problem, not mine.

Two: just up the street from friends of ours, adding to excellence of location; also on high side of the street, a plus, as low side sometimes gets water in basements (so helpful to know people in area). Detached garage: would love to have attached garage, but not an absolute necessity. Very small. Enter into small living room; floor uneven as you go into dining area, indicating settling; small bedrooms; dark partially finished basement. Wanted to love it because of being near friends, but just not room enough for our books and everything else. Also long walk out to garage.

An Academic Lady House-Hunts, 4

The Dance Studio and its ilk:

It seems there are two basic models of split-level in this area. One is the type of the Gambling Den; for the other, you enter onto a landing, with stairs up and down from there. Up: living/ dining, kitchen, 3 bedrooms; down: family room, laundry, and office/bedroom. We saw three or four of these, and finally decided they are all too small for us. The Dance Studio lined the entire eastern wall of the house (living/dining) with mirrors. Carpet covered the floors, concealing saggy spots in the living room floor. House not old enough to have saggy floors.

Another of these was a fixer-upper, partially rehabbed, with problems in the laundry room and big (new) sliding doors in the lower-level family room, opening onto a playing field. Foresee broken windows.

Considered a version that had a beautiful multi-level deck off the kitchen and nicely landscaped yard, but the kitchen was poorly laid out, and it was still the same size as the others.