How our houses speak of us

You know that cherished 21st-century feeling when you find a blog so wonderful you stop everything you’re doing (researching the price points of respectable American-made shoes) and read every single post since the blog began?

I felt this when I found McMansion Hell. Kate Wagner loves architecture and roasting bad American homes. She’s funny and a great teacher and a fellow North Carolinian, so I feel a particular kinship with her.

As Kate charmingly eviscerates McMansions, you realize that so much of the horror of these incredibly American homes is self-evident—even if you know nothing about proportion and architecture, like me. So if a total amateur like myself can see the grossness after a few minutes of Kate’s tutelage, why are so many of these monsters built? Why do so many people elect to live in these architectural trash heaps? Is everyone blind to the ugliness?

Here’s my short (probably incorrect) theory: Our desire to appear wealthy vastly overpowers our appreciation of aesthetics.

Having eleven roof lines and a four-car garage satisfies our human craving for approval and respect far more than an architecturally balanced home. This is Trump’s country, after all: The appearance of wealth is practically an American virtue.

Lately, because of Kate Wagner and a stack of architecture books I got for a few bucks at the library book sale, I’ve been thinking about proportion and design in mass-produced little homes like ours.

We live in a basic 1950s “Cape Cod,” the original floorplan of which is a straightforward box. The rooms are small and the ceilings are nothing to write home about. The main bathroom and the closets are very small. The exterior is shingled with pale green asbestos siding, which has not been touched for decades.

Here’s what it looked like the day we bought it, in October 2013:

Day we bought the house
Oh God help we just spent all our money.
Listing photos of our house
The listing photo for our plain Jane.

How bare, how sunny!

We’ve made small exterior improvements, namely to the yard (to which I am foolishly devoted), and added a pair of shutters, a new front door, and tiny amendments to the stoop.

Here’s what it looks like now:

Spring 2018
(Avert your gaze from my grievously dead rosemary shrubs and the unkempt lawn.)
Spring 2018
Cherry tree and dogwoods in bloom.

It’s still a little off-kilter and shingled with asbestos, but I am happy about the progress we’ve made. That grass is high on my kill list. Can’t wait to get rid of it and fill it with native plants. One day I want new windows. And I am so eager to jack up our ugly concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. But all in due time. Our quirky little house is fine as it is; we are content.

My opening salvo on McMansions has little to do with our home, except to say that I am learning the virtues of contentment and patience. I am thinking more about the beauty in all humble homes, even in mass-produced little ones like ours, and how we can appreciate what we’ve been given.

Home again

Front yard, Aug. 2016
The front yard has grown very green in our absence.

It is good to be home. We are settling back in to old routines and creating new ones.

I am so happy to have the dogs again, but I think they regret being back with us (there is no Jak to play with them every day, take them for rollerblade runs or swims in the river, etc.). I’ve been trying to walk them more than usual and play Frisbee with Edie at least once a day to make them love me again. Hard to tell if it’s working.

Things I had forgotten to miss while abroad but am so pleased to have again

  • Our public library. I put 10 books on hold the first week we were back, and now I’m swamped, but I am so happy to be back in the swing of reading and to have every conceivable book at my fingertips again. (Our London library, while quaint, left a lot to be desired.)
  • Vast American grocery stores
  • My calligraphy studio
  • Our house, dingy as it now appears in certain lights
  • The local art scene and the people who curate it
  • The subsidized cafeteria in my office
  • Watermelon
  • Our basement
  • The little Wednesday farmers’ market around the corner from our house
  • The loony neighborhood email group
  • My sprawling, mismanaged house plants

Latest reading obsessions:

History of domestic American architecture. Once you see (and learn how to see) a properly and stylistically restored home, you can’t unsee it. I see spindly porch columns and bad banisters everywhere in and outside our house, and now my eyes burn. I suddenly loathe the asbestos siding, the structural incongruities. Would that I had a cool $100K to re-do the entire exterior of our circa-1959 house. I am chock-full of renovation ideas that I utterly cannot fund.

Maggie Nelson. Maggie Nelson! Reading The Argonauts very slowly and drinking it all in. The past year has been filled with these utterly breathtaking women writers who are simultaneously under-read and deeply revered by those who have found them (see: Anne Carson, Lydia Davis). Up next in this vein: Clarice Lispector. Just bought myself a copy of The Passion According to G.H.

Things to be happy about: Donald Trump seems to be trying to tank his own candidacy. We might get to save America from itself after all! Also: So many new babies in town. And dear friends getting puppies and kitties. And today was only 90 degrees, so it felt almost cool.

Collect, overbalance, and fall

Camden and Regent's Park area

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking. 

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Camden and Regent's Park area