Our Houses, Our Selves

A new crop of books suggests that for women, obsession with real estate is replacing obsession with love and marriage.
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And what’s more fun than falling madly in love with a piece of real estate? Nowhere is this more vividly described than in Meghan Daum’s wry new memoir, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, a (nearly) man-free romance that could easily spark a new genre: My House, My Self. Here Daum, who is a friendly acquaintance of mine, exposes the modern real-estate-mad female underground, where open houses (visited in rabid two-women teams) are a seasonal blood sport; where Zillow is a verb; where we may “stage” our very bodies in arty, tenty ballet tops (from an online clothier soothingly named Soft Surroundings); where remodeling a collapsing Nebraska farmhouse into a writer’s retreat could instantly, we imagine, transform us into the George Plimpton of the prairie. When she does finally commit to a man, it’s to get parking. In Daum’s life, one of continual and energetic cross-country moving, the search for the perfect domicile is less practical than wildly emotional—so emotional that at times she has literally no room for any other relationships. Says Daum:

Moving, like chocolate and sunshine, stirs up many of the same chemicals you ostensibly produce when you’re in love. At least it does for me. Like a new lover, a new house opens a floodgate of anticipation and trepidation and terrifying expectations fused with dreamy distractions. It’s all encompassing and crazy making. You can’t concentrate at work … you meet your friends for lunch and can speak only of your closet space. No wonder I hadn’t needed sex. I was drowning in the eros of real estate.

She traces this (and shouldn’t there be a German word for it?) hauslust to her bohemian-spirited mother, who grew up alongside Daum’s bohemian-spirited (if not in the same way, and here was the rub) father in the disappointingly suburban southern Illinois town of Carbondale. Daum’s mother always yearned for a more glamorous, sophisticated, vaguely New York life, and “her primary means of expression for this ambition [was] houses.” Daum’s mother’s quest for self-transformation reaches an apex when, upon Daum’s departure for college, she finally moves out. The family-free home she chooses is a

Tudor-style duplex, a House and Garden–worthy abode exploding with color and art and flowers and light streaming through the sunroom windows and Sondheim music streaming through the Bose stereo. She has remade herself. She is a busy, animated, unattached woman with busy, animated friends and tickets to concerts and paintings made by artists she knows.

Writes Daum about her own house quest, in the career way station of Los Angeles,

Most shatteringly, [I found] a rustic, bohemian Craftsman-cum-hunter’s cabin with skylights, sleeping lofts, and a pool that, with about $300,000 worth of foundation work, would have been more right for me than my very own skin. Unfortunately, [it] turned out to be right for people with about twice as much money to spend as I had.

Because herein lies the problem, in the non–Nancy Meyers/Meryl Streep/Steve Martin/Santa Barbara fantasy world. None of us has that unlimited cash river!

I am raptly studying the New York Times Magazine piece on lefty stay-at-home mothers in Berkeley who raise their own chickens. In a house with no cable ($144 a month so my girls can get Disney?), the only entertainment we have is reading, the many subscriptions my lone indulgence. Evenings go by so slowly, I’m already halfway through my every-four-years reread of Anna Karenina. This was my own trapped 1970s suburban mother’s favorite novel, although unlike the doomed Anna—if much like Daum’s mother—my mom waited until we left for college to flee the family home. I’m intrigued by the stay-at-home-mom chicken-slaughtering because on my rickety nightstand (flea market—$8!) is my new bible, Shannon Hayes’s Radical Homemakers. Sure, it has some of the usual tropes one would expect from a crunchy-granola rebel seeking to live off the land: Hayes’s daughters have lyrically daunting names like Saoirse and Ula; there is copious homeschooling; there are hushed-voice, enigmatic, and unironic biographical descriptions like “She raises and forages most of her food in the heart of the city” (Chicago). More-timid souls might balk at maybe limiting their diet to venison, figs, and prickly pear cactus; melting beef tallow for soap; or even learning more about what is meant by the novel word humanure.

And yet, I find myself dog-earing page after page, exclaiming “Aha!” and circling passages. There is, to begin with, the unpredictability of Hayes’s worldview. Consider that she is currently working on a book titled Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. She even applauds radical homemaking mothers in Alaska who help with the Moose Kill List, in which churches and food banks benefit from “harvesting” moose roadkill—which arguably gives the homemakers less in common with Alice Waters than with Sarah Palin. Still, particularly in this economy, Hayes makes points that do resonate. The family home is indeed seen as a unit of consumption rather than production: thanks to the past few decades of an “extractive economy that serves America’s elites and protects its corporations,” household skills have been “replaced with products, thrift with income, and time with convenience.” Who can deny that we feel disempowered, fearfully and helplessly throwing money at problems we don’t understand? Meanwhile, in turn, the automobile became to the 20th-century housewife what the “cast-iron stove had been to her counterpart in 1850—the means by which she did the majority of her work.” Though most country-dwelling radical homemakers cannot do entirely without automotive transport, it’s one car per family, driven once a week, and the boys are whizzes at home automotive repair. As one of the many average Americans who spend $8,500 a year on car ownership, I am jealous!

What a heady brand of feminism—self-reliance in the home is a path to a more authentic macro-freedom: freedom from government, freedom from corporations, freedom from a soul-diminishing global economy! Like early American rebels who freed themselves from dependence on the British by pairing turkey not with imported jam but with locally grown cranberry sauce, we, too, can start a revolution in the kitchen! At which point, flipping back to the acknowledgments, I see one of the most startling paragraphs in modern feminist writing:

Thanks, most especially, are owed to [my husband,] Bob He keeps the girls quiet every morning while I work. He brings breakfast to my desk and keeps my coffee cup full so that I don’t have to be interrupted. He sits with me for hours, reviewing ideas, challenging concepts, helping me to interpret research. He listens to the radio, tracks news stories and reads magazines, finding bits of information that contribute to my research. He sells books at every lecture, does all my PowerPoints for me, chooses and irons my clothes, packs my suitcase, washes my dishes, does the laundry, edits every one of my books and articles and claims to love my cooking. He cherishes me, makes me laugh, and fills my life with friendship, joy, humor, and unconditional love.

That’s what the new radical feminism depends on—a guy named Bob (who can presumably also do leatherwork and butcher hogs)!

My whole do-it-yourself home-care gambit began as a necessity—housecleaning at $160 a shot was not going to fly, so my girls and I invented a game in which we pretend to be the servants in an unexpectedly grand home whose real family is away (which means, of course—as in a Merchant Ivory film—you get to gossip about them). Together we wash the wooden floors (“It’s like painting—you ‘paint’ the floor with Murphy Oil Soap and water!”), which in fact turns out to be fun, possibly more fun than the children’s-museum puppetry workshop I recently saw advertised at $40 a head. Although my life is far from perfect, the irony is that in a divorced parent’s custody schedule—with days on and days off—instead of like it was before when I felt ragged and still oddly guilty all the time, now I feel guilty but not ragged. As a result, I have the energy to do things with my kids I never did before. We cook; we bike; we squeeze lemonade; we play tennis at the local park; with the aid of our neighborly tool-belt lesbians, my 7-year-old actually replaced a dead-bolt lock; we scrub our own toilets with Kaboom; we self-assemble IKEA laundry baskets (watching me curse while whacking a leg in with a pipe, my girls shouted: “This is better than TV!”).

Today is our first full yard-work day; I bend over to yank a row of weeds and, unbelievably, in a Hallmark moment (or what I’ve come to think of in L.A. terms as a $15,000-a-year-Waldorf-private-school moment), I uncover a nest of ladybugs. The girls put their hands out to feel the ladybugs’ feet tickle, and as we all continue working in the dirt, in a moment of relative, unnegotiated harmony, bathed in sun, infused with the joy of physical exercise, and most of all with the deeply thrumming sensation of thrift (the gardener’s quote was $175), I finally allow my habitual worry about everything to unclench, I feel a floating, exquisite happiness, and I realize the thought bubble that floats above me is, weirdly: I TOTALLY F@#&IN’ LOVE YARD WORK! And I realize my midlife gender-bending transition is complete: I have become less Anna Karenina than Levin.

So what if, in comparison with Jane Austen’s time, when the heroine’s journey was necessarily Girl Meets Boy, Girl Marries Boy, Girl Gets Pemberley, 200 years later our plots are Woman Buys Pemberley, Pemberley Needs Remodeling, Woman Hires Handsome, Soulful, Single Architect to Find Perfect Farmhouse Sink but After Whirlwind Affair Boots Him Out Anyway Because She Hates His Choice of Carpeting? We still want the adrenaline rush; we still yearn to endlessly transform ourselves; we still want to dream and feel and love. I think of Daum the night she finally buys her first real house (with its death-trap garage and questionable foundation). She describes a kind of trembling, bittersweet spiritual rapture you won’t find in any pragmatic modern dating-advice book:

A path had been cleared through the field, and as I approached, my fourth glass of wine in one hand, the dog leash in the other (Rex, for his part, had already ambled off into the distance), I began to experience that particular form of exuberant abandon that comes from walking around drunk in the darkness … In other words, I had arrived! Whereas other single thirty-four-year-old females were getting drunk and crying in rental apartments with the requisite wicker furniture, Moroccan-style throw pillows, and pear-scented candles from Pier 1 Imports, I had the dignity, privilege, and, let’s face it, cojones to do so in my OWN HOUSE.

Whether you wish to chant “Our houses, our selves” or “We have houses, hear us roar,” for us women, home is where the heart is.

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.
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