Monday, October 14, 2013

A House is not Always a Home

I was the owner of a house for abut a minute. Then the marriage fell apart and I ran off with my wife's buyout offer.

Home ownership is a key pillar in America's civil religion.  It's also a component in what it means to be a husband, a father and a man.  Not only the poor are homeless.

Owning a home was the goal touted for veterans after the second world war.  My father served in the Coast Guard on Lake Erie because he'd lost a couple of fingers in an industrial accident and the other services wouldn't take him (in later years he was unable to join the Elks or the Lions club because he couldn't perform the club handshake).  When he was hired to sell plastics in the south as a traveling salesman after the war's end, my parents bought a tiny house in Greensboro, borrowing money from relatives for the downpayment.  I was eight and I loved the big back yard with a tree I could climb. No more rentals like the apartments they'd had in Toledo.  My mom and dad traded up for the rest of their lives, buying houses in western North Carolina, Atlanta, Southern California and Florida.  After my mother died, my brother and I split the sale price for her cinderblock home. He bought an apartment and I spent my share on travel.

I was raised on cowboy movies and science fiction and the prospect of owning property, not to mention having a wife and children, never appealed.  I wanted a life of adventure.  The fact that paying rent produced no equity did not bother me.  I shared houses with friends who'd taken the plunge and noted their possessive joy, but it failed to change my mind.  House ownership was a complicated affair that chained one to an object that was a domineering mistress.

Women need a nest more than men, according to my understanding of sexual difference, and my first two wives were persistent in their desire to get a house.  Fortunately, I never saved enough money nor made a large enough salary to fill that need.  Whatever excess was available I preferred to use for travel (London 1964-66, Hawaii and Florida in the 1980s).

When my second wife received an substantial inheritance from a distant relative whom most in the family considered an oddball, all resistance faded.  My daughter and I found a house on a hillside in the Santa Cruz Mountains that was perfect.  It was surrounded by redwoods and fir trees, and had been enlarged from a cabin built by a friend, a piano player who taught music for years to prisoners at Soledad.  He and his wife, a stewardess with a drug problem, had a deaf child and when their marriage collapsed, he had to sell the property.

My good credit allowed us to finance a third of the cost of the house with two-thirds coming from the inheritance.  My wife began gardening big time, and she bought a hot tub.  A tiny cabin up the hill from the house became my book-lined study and it was there that I wrote most of my Ph.d. dissertation about the movement in California to save ancient redwood trees in the first state park. We were living in paradise, but time was running out.  She was particularly displeased when I refused to climb up on the roof to remove the leaves and clean out the gutters.  She loved hardware stores; I found them dreadfully boring.  A relationship that began when she admired my poetry which I read one evening in the restaurant where she was a cook was heading for disaster.

I don't have pictures of the house because I left all my photos behind when she told me she wanted to live alone.  The photo I took above is of one of the many Victorians in Santa Cruz where I visited not long before Halloween in 2010.

After the split, my daughter accused me of threatening to take away the house that she and her brother hoped someday to inherit from their mother who at that point held the purse strings.  They stayed with her and I went through a succession of rooms in the dwellings of friends before finding a secure rental in a pool house near the beach. I learned that my soon-to-be ex-wife expended considerable effort in getting the lowest possible estimate on the value of the house so as to lower the amount she needed to pay me to give up my half.  Her check for $20,000 provided traveling money for a couple of years. Her next husband was a plumber who knew his way around the hardware store and who installed a new wood-burning stove for her.  He also taught her to surf.

My son and his wife live in a palatial spread next to vineyards in the foothills of Sonoma County. He worked hard and was successful early in life when he and his wife made the decision not to have children.  They fill their rooms with dogs and cats, some living out their lives in the comfort of a house most people can only dream about.  It's basically a one-bedroom house with a couple of spare rooms over the garage, with a connected living room and dining room big enough to throw a large party.  I'm happy that someone in my lineage can have the chance to experience living in a 21st century plantation, but I found the small guest room upstairs fulfilled all my needs.  If my world here collapsed for any reason, it might be possible to retire there surrounded by grape vines and boutique vintners.

Now that I live in Thailand, I frequently run into expats who retain property back home which helps to fund their retirement (or escape) in Thailand.  Others talk of the condos they've purchased at prices far lower than they'd pay in the U.S. or England, or Denmark.  I've met people with maids and penthouse gardens.  My sister-in-law's boyfriend has put money down on a condominium that has yet to be constructed.  My wife would be very happy if we could figure out how to buy a place.  Jerry, who used money from writing to purchase a farm in Mendocino back in the 1970s, now visits his farm in Surin once a month where his wife stays to raise rice and pigs and they live in a house he built that is ostentatious enough to tell the villagers for miles around that a farang is in residence.

Social Security (which may be threatened when the U.S. government is forced to default on its bills in several days' time) and the small amount I earn from teaching English to monks will not permit me to share my wife's dreams, even if I didn't still have an aversion to owning anything so grand as a house and land or even a small condo.  I've always understood the practicality of buying over paying rent, and I feel the negative social pressure from being a man who lacks property.  But for now, this home of mine of less than 40 square meters, in which I've lived now for four wonderful years, will have to suffice.

What's the difference, then, between a house and a home?  At a bare minimum, I'd say that a house is a material structure and a home is more of a state of mind.  "Home" can be a wonderful metaphor that, for example, Brother David Steindl-Rast uses for his description of union with God which he sees as kind of a going home.  Graham Nash wrote this lovely song about living in a house in Laurel Canyon for several years with Joni Mitchell, but he is most certainly talking about a home.


Sam said...

In my first job as a teacher I got through twelve lodgings in three years, starting with the kitchen floor of a friend's house in Greenwich.

When I split with my wife in 1990 she got the house. It was "balanced" against my imminent inheritance owing to the recent death of my parents. (Tumultuous times). The fact that my wife was an only child due before long to inherit a lot more than me didn't seem to come into it. The delicate situation with my daughter meant I was disinclined to rock the boat.

Now I'm in Thailand my now wife dissuades me from buying a property since if she predeceases me I could be vulnerable since (as a foreigner) I am not allowed to be outright owner. I can't be bothered to go through complicated Thai legal maneuvering to protect myself, I'd rather go back to the UK.

So we'll end up like the Europeans - living in a rented place. This gives us flexibility with our desire to travel (light). It might make us a bit rootless without a traditional "family home" to fall back on but when you think about it, what proportion of people in the world really have this luxury?

Ian said...

The problem with building a large house which announces to the world that a "farang is in residence" is that it also becomes a magnet for chancers. Why do so many farang have to boast that they are one up on the local Thais?

Edward Snowden has been described as being perfectly happy in a tiny room anywhere in the world so long as he can connect his laptop. Could he be the future?

Certainly it's your internal geography (state of mind) rather than the external geography which makes a home. A Scottish sheep farmer in the remote highlands was once asked by Paul Theroux "What's it like being away from the centre of things?" The farmer's answer was: "It depends what you mean by the centre of things."

Sam said...

Apropos of my earlier comment.