House Proud

I want a house. No, I don't. Houses are trouble. They have roofs and furnaces and plumbing that all are in constant need of repair. Their property taxes are higher and, if you are lucky enough to live in the suburbs, they have lawns to mow.[1] They're lonely because you don't have anyone walking above you or playing loud music through the walls. Some of them are no bigger than the apartment my family and I live in now, and the ones that are bigger are simply too big, all that useless space.[2] Plus, of course, having a house is just one step closer to utter damnation, because, as you know, most people in the world would kill just to live in an apartment half as nice as the one we have. Who am I to imagine that I deserve a better place to live when most of the world's population lives in cardboard?

Okay, so that's a bit hyperbolic (but only just). Actually, I'm not sure whether I want a house. I like our apartment. It has character and style.[3] It's big enough but not too big. You don't, for example, feel like you spend all of your time moving across the rooms to get from one thing to another or rushing up and down the stairs because you can't remember where you left something. Our kitchen, while (at the moment) aesthetically unappealing, is in fact a fairly good size, quite functional really for all that it is not large enough to eat in. And I'm kidding myself to think that if we had a house our lives would feel less cluttered. My family and I attract clutter like PigPen attracts dirt. Even if we had a mansion, we would probably manage to clutter it up with books and LEGO and papers and projects. I might dream of having elegant reception rooms with all of the mess of living tucked nicely away upstairs, but it probably wouldn't work. We'd still fill it up with (oh so precious) junk.

And yet, my heart sinks every time I visit a colleague who has the good fortune to have earned, somehow, a house. For those of you who don't know our neighborhood, suffice it to say that quite small houses can cost upward of a half million dollars. Houses approaching anywhere near suburb-size start at around three-quarters of a million, if that little.[4] And yet, some of my colleagues, some even in my very own department, have managed to buy them. To be sure, some of my colleagues have been here since the 1960s, when nobody other than university faculty wanted to live in the neighborhood, but others have come much more recently, even since I've been here. Typically, they had either family money or some other boost to help them into the house market, but not always. Somehow, mysteriously, they simply can afford a house. Which, on the rare occasions when I actually visit them, makes me want to curl up and die even as I smile and agree that, yes, they've done lovely things with the decorating.

My sister-in-law, quite rightly, tells me to get a grip. I live in a wonderful city, in a wonderful neighborhood; I have the job of my dreams, with great students [5] plus time to write [6]; thanks to where I teach, my son gets to go to a great school; my husband has a job at a world-renowned institution in the same city [7]; sometimes we even get to travel to Europe to see my husband's and my family. "Would you," she asks, "give up these things for a house?" Well, no, of course not. But, here's the rub: most of my colleagues have all of the same things. We live in the same neighborhood in the same city; their kids go to the same school; their spouses have jobs, some even in the same department; and they get to travel to Europe (or elsewhere), sometimes even two or three times a year (we make it about once every two or three years, maybe). AND they have a house.[8] Somehow, they have not had to "give up" anything, at least, nothing that I, too, have not already given up--my youth to my training, my young adulthood to my writing my first book and learning to teach, my desire for another child to the exigencies of keeping my job [9]--in order to have a house.

Apples and oranges, I know. I don't know what struggles they have had otherwise; some of them have suffered terrible losses and disappointments (divorce, the death or illness of a child or a spouse). I wouldn't necessarily want their life either. But it mystifies me why, having followed exactly the same career to exactly the same institution, even the same department, somehow, they have ended up where they are and I have ended up where I am, domestically-speaking. One colleague lucky enough to be able to buy a house once said to me, "I couldn't imagine my children (plural) growing up in an apartment; it was really important to me that we have a house." As if growing up in an apartment were somehow, yes, bad. Substandard. Psychically debilitating. Empty.

For goodness' sake, what difference does it make?! My son is as mystified by my desire for a house as I am by my colleagues' source of income. As far as he is concerned, living in an apartment is what people do; it's cozy and homelike and utterly familiar. He has no desire whatsoever to live in a house. And my husband likewise, although for different reasons. He spent his childhood in houses that his father was continually remodeling. For him, houses are just more work, giant projects that never get done. He wasn't even sure he ever wanted to own even a condo, never mind a house. At least with a condo, there are other owners to help with the expenses of repairing the roof and upgrading the plumbing. Not to mention somebody else who enjoys mowing to take care of the lawn.[10]

It's a prestige thing, I know. Having a beautiful house is supposed to say something about what kind of person you are. A person with taste. A person who enjoys company. A person who has, mysteriously but with hard work and luck, "made it." Living in an apartment suggests youth, up-and-comingness, the time of your life when you are still not fully established. Whereas a house says, "I'm a grown-up. I'm here now. I'm somebody." Maybe it would be different if I, like my son, had grown up in apartments. Maybe then I wouldn't feel this nagging sense of, yes, failure because my family and I don't live in a house. It really isn't as if we couldn't if, say, we moved out to the suburbs. Although in that case I really would feel like I was giving something up simply in order to have a house (i.e. all the time that I would spend on the train or in the car, commuting). But, here's the thing, why should I? My colleagues haven't had to. They live here, in the same neighborhood, in houses. Which must mean, by the logic of houses, that they have "made it" while I, somehow, haven't.

Full disclosure: most of my colleagues actually, like me, live in condos. But the sense that I get from most of them is that they choose to. Apartments, particularly apartments in elevator buildings with door attendants, are much more convenient if you are traveling to Europe (or elsewhere) a lot. You can just walk out, lock the door and ask your door attendant to take in your mail. No worries about break-ins or stuff breaking. There will be somebody to take care of things while you are away. Plus, most of them live in condos that are significantly larger than mine, at least those who are senior to me, which tends to suggest, again, that they chose a condo over a house. Moreover, most of them have lived in those condos for the better part of the time that they've been here, so often they moved into them when they were younger than I am now. Which leaves me pretty much where I am with regard to the houses: envious, and wondering what I've done wrong.[11]

[1] And there is nothing that I want to do less every Saturday morning than mow. Really: NOTHING.
[2] Actually, I'm not kidding here. It's interesting visiting people who clearly live only in a small part of their house, the rest of it simply ignored unless they're showing visitors around.
[3] Not to mention, a hundred years old, with some of its original features, including the moldings. And all of the main rooms are an interesting shape with curves and angles, no boring rectangles.
[4] Truth to tell, some of the condos in our neighborhood cost this much, too. And they're bigger than the houses. I'm not much better off when I visit colleagues who live in these.
[5] Really, I know I've been saying this a lot lately, but it's true. I couldn't ask for better students, mine are amazing.
[6] Sometimes. It's really hard getting any writing done other than letters of reference once term starts. Because, of course, I have to work hard to teach my amazing students.
[7] No, I do NOT underestimate how lucky we are in this respect.
[8] Or a bigger condo. But this is about houses.
[9] Can you say, wants a puppy? Don't you just love their little tails?!!! And watch for the cat.
[10] Oh, yes, we have one. That is, our building has one. Bigger and better than the lawn that my colleague with the multiple children and the house has. But we have to share.
[11] And before everyone starts telling me how lucky I am to have a job at all, I KNOW THAT! I didn't say I was proud about feeling the way I do about houses, only that I feel it. I wish very much that I didn't, which is why I am writing about it here.


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