Our Houses, Our Selves

A new crop of books suggests that for women, obsession with real estate is replacing obsession with love and marriage.

There’s a scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage in which Gilbert visits a hut full of Hmong women and asks them some leading Elizabeth Gilbert questions. These include “What did you think of your husband, the first time you ever met him?” and “Where did you first meet your husband?” and “When did you fall in love with him?” At this line of inquiry, the previously convivial Hmong now fall into silence, shifting, puzzlement: these are details so unmemorable to them that they literally can’t remember. And at this moment, the famously footloose (now famously married) writer has a revelation:

Neither the grandmother nor any other woman in that room was placing her marriage at the center of her emotional biography in any way that was remotely familiar to me. In the modern industrialized Western world, where I come from, the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality. Your spouse becomes the most gleaming possible mirror through which your emotional individualism is reflected back to the world … So if you ask any typical modern Western woman how she met her husband, when she met her husband, and why she fell in love with her husband, you can be plenty sure that you will be told a complete, complex, and deeply personal narrative which that woman has not only spun carefully around the entire experience, but which she has memorized, internalized, and scrutinized for clues as to her own selfhood.

In short, Gilbert concludes wonderingly, none of these Hmong women were “crafting the character of ‘the husband’” into either the hero or the villain in some vast, complex, and epic Story of the Emotional Self.

Are the Hmong in fact onto something? Would American women be wise to follow suit? In 2010, is it finally time for us to give up our keening, fraught, repetitive Narratives of the Husband (Good, Bad, or Lack Thereof)?

My journalist friend Steven thinks so. “There is too much nattering-on about marriage today, it is all done by women, and it is absolutely excruciating,” he declared recently, while helping me sort and toss my recycling—old issues of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, a range of magazines, from The Economist (why do we get this?) to, embarrassingly enough (Tiger Woods, Elizabeth Edwards), People. Sure, Steven continues bitterly, he could pick apart his own long-term marriage, but he doesn’t. If male authors wrote half the things about their wives that female authors wrote about their husbands, he says, they’d be run out of town! Citing Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine cover story detailing her own marital therapy blow by blow, Steven exclaims: “Good Lord—at one point she complains about her husband’s COOKING! He’s a great cook, sure, makes great meals, but she feels—boo hoo!—that he lingers too long in the kitchen and buys too many expensive ingredients! Meanwhile, a wife can gain 30 pounds during pregnancy, keep it on for decades, and God FORBID the husband ever utters a peep about it. A peep!” (Meaningfully, he taps the People with Elizabeth Edwards on the cover.)

He doesn’t have to point out that I am among the guilty, a woman writer who has gone on and on about men and marriage, in these very pages. But I have since moved on, as does life: my divorce papers are final; I parent my children; I’ve even bought my own house. And not just any house. Thanks to a bad economy, plunging interest rates, and a deeply depressed market, I lowballed by $150,000—and got—one of the many short-saled real-estate whales flopping around in the sea of California foreclosures. My house is not just a circa 1904/2008 renovation, yuppie, Craftsman fantasy (burnished wood paneling, hexagonal tile, monstrous Viking range, Precision Steel wine cooler); it seems extraordinarily giant, at least for a person who had lived for 20 years in a 1,300-square-foot bungalow. Waking every morning in this turn-of-the-century three-floor four-square is surreal; I call going downstairs to get coffee “visiting Base Camp 1.” And yet, because the down payment emptied me of every last penny and because (since my old house was long paid off) the new $2,200-a-month mortgage seems astronomical (are you listening, Ben Schwarz?), I am now house-rich and cash-poor.

Like Gone With the Wind–style carpetbaggers who hastily, as in some mix-up, took possession of the fancy manse of a suddenly destitute aristocratic family, we use the massive Viking range to make humble tuna melts, the fancy steam shower houses big-buy Prell, and the red LED of the wine cooler winks over only the most dubious $4.99 Australian shirazes (and that’s for a half gallon). I am no expert on all this whisper-shut cabinetry, but I’m quite sure this house was not designed as a necropolis for jug wines whose labels feature kangaroos or for dining-room chairs bought off the street for $7. (A Mexican busboy had inherited them from Coco’s Family Restaurant when it remodeled—yes, these spindly wooden chairs are rejects from a 1960s chain diner, but if you squint, I think, they look almost … Shakeresque!)

“And did you see that write-up of Lori Gottlieb’s book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough?” Steven pushes on, while I sit on the stoop and sort catalogs from, ooh, Restoration Hardware (10 percent off!). Ah, the swan-necked Mission- style lamps with their antique-like glass, ornate doorknobs, chrome towel racks, needlessly complex apothecary-style soap dispensers. I can’t buy any of it, but I like to leave these catalogs lying around. “Good grief!” Steven wends on. “As far as I can tell, books like these seem to be written mostly for 40-something women who have to date 65-year-old bald guys in bow ties named Sheldon from Match.com with three adult children … So what? Why are women still so obsessed with MEN?”

At which point I look up. “I think you’re wrong,” I say, putting down my catalog. “I think middle-aged female readers’ tastes are actually shifting away from the marriage plot.” In Committed, Gilbert, our foremost village bardess, stands in the public square and, like some trance-driven Hmong medicine woman, armed with only her staggering advance, unintentionally clubs the idea of marriage finally to death. Indeed, it seems to me that women out to commit these days are hunting for something a bit more stable than marriage. Look at The Three Weissmanns of Westport—Cathleen Schine’s popular recent novel, which, Steven recalls from the big front-of-the–NYT Book Review ad, is “an update of Sense and Sensibility.” “Well, it isn’t,” I say. In the end, The Three Weissmanns is less about who ends up with the men than who ends up with the real estate. You feel a satisfying closure, not because the aging, philandering father ever returns (which he doesn’t) but because the unusually capacious Central Park West family apartment reverts to the proper and properly manicured hands of the three Weissmann women. Now, Manhattan real estate itself has always been a major character in American fiction. How about Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby? Page one, Rosemary has fallen in love with—and must have—an apartment in a Victorian building called the Bramford because of, you remember, those stunning high ceilings. Who cares if a New York co-op is a nest of Satanists? Magical light! High ceilings!

“But it’s not just books,” I persist. “Look at today’s movies. First, wait, oh my God, Meryl Streep is in every single movie now! It’s all Meryl, all the time! What does that mean?” (Even Steven has to agree with me here: his wife is so Streep-obsessed that after a tough week she will wordlessly take a bowl of yogurt and granola into the bedroom, slide in her Julie & Julia DVD—an artisanal shingle of Streep—and fast-forward through the non-Streep parts.) Even when she’s married, she isn’t really married. After all, which of us perimenopausal addicts of Streep soft porn didn’t enjoy Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Paul Child, doe-eyed and dapper, with his vague and non-taxing Parisian diplomat job, hovering reverently like a gymnast below La Streep, catching her hand, lifting her, supporting her—not so much husband as deft pixie. And look at It’s Complicated, the latest, totally satisfying Nancy Meyers fantasy. Here Streep plays a divorced professional chef who’s rhapsodically remodeling her probably $10 million Santa Barbara home, in particular the already gorgeous kitchen—which represents not 1950s female drudgery but 21st- century female creativity, entrepreneurial success, a place to ply one’s charming, attractive, conveniently grown-up children with comfort food, and of course an arena for chocolate-infused middle-of-the-night sensuality. Into Streep’s already-perfect world swans the rakish ex, Alec Baldwin. Yonder mopes the soulful architect, Steve Martin. Streep boffs both, sends Baldwin home, and at film’s end, makes no promises to the lovelorn Martin except that she will permit him to continue, on contract, updating her kitchen. You go, girl! This plot is at least more man-friendly than that of a galley that came to me recently called The Season of Second Chances, by Diane Meier—another novel a certain stripe of not-aged-but-wonderfully-seasoned-middle-aged lady might read on her Adirondack chaise under a pashmina throw at her shabby-chic Westport beach house—in which our midlife heroine moves from New York to the country, buys a charming, collapsing Victorian, has an affair with the buff young handyman who lovingly updates the Victorian, and when the remodeling is done, triumphantly … dumps the handyman! (Perhaps because—fatal contracting flaw—he forgot to ensure his tenure by outfitting the master bath with those de rigueur double oversize Kohler bowl sinks!)

Indeed, when you juxtapose this raft of juicy/midlife/regrets-I’ve-had-a-few-but-I-still-have-great-skin women’s tales (whose happy endings do not necessitate a marriage) with the lone jeremiad Marry Him (which does), it becomes clear that for more and more second-act women, our hottest new womanly romance is with real estate. As far as fantasy excitement goes, could real estate, indeed, be considered the new sex? It makes total sense for Streep-set females of a certain age, those Women of Independent—or at least Quasi-Independent—Means. Because never mind the fact that we feel bad about our neck, our purse, or the fact that the stylish pumps we love are less Jimmy Choo than Stuart Weitzman and Donald J. Pliner (names that call to mind kindly if dome-pated gynecologists). Schoolgirls at heart, we remain optimistic that even after 40, we can be forever rebirthed (or at least repeeled), everything can be reinvented, the best is yet to come. Whatever the problem, we can engineer the solution—we just need to roll up our sleeves, invoke a panel of experts, troll for the best price online, rearrange, rehydrate, tinker, fix, hammer. Such continual resculpting may be irksome if the vessel of our current and future happiness is an actual male, particularly if he has to be our age and available, since in this apocalyptic Obama-era marriage economy, he will likely be less George Clooney than Maurice Tempelsman—if ill-mannered and without the fortune. Anyway, how much of modern dating is merely a search for a Man to plug into the glorious Life we can already describe—the wine tastings, walks on the beach, jazz music, NYT crossword on Sunday mornings? To all that, isn’t the Tucci to our Streep (with his sweater around his neck, reverently tasting our bouillabaisse from a distant kettle) just the garnish? Why should we struggle so hard to unsnarl the morose, sciatica-bound knot that is our eHarmony Sheldon (who may not acquiesce to even the most basic maintenance couple’s therapy—some of them don’t!) when, like Meyers with her wide-angle, summer-hued lens, we can construct our own soft-focus existence in the arms of “a stately Victorian,” “charming Craftsman,” or even “rambling mid-century stunner with great bones,” who—er, I mean, that—just needs a bit of tasteful updating? As the years grind on, Sheldon will only continue to physically collapse, as opposed to a house, whose luster just improves with age. A 100-year-old farmhouse? Make it 200! Even 300! Original hardware! Wide-plank floors!

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.

By Elizabeth Gilbert

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