Monday, November 23, 2009

A Bill of Divorcement

10 Things I've Learned Without Meaning To:

1. It won't always be like this. This has become my mantra in times of trial—I recite it robotically to myself even when I can't really believe that anything will ever get better. But no matter what, it's always true. As of today, the carnival of woes I described last time is over. The painting is finished, the plumbing repaired, the kitchen floor installed, the carpet laid. (Okay, so the walk-in closet somehow didn't make it onto the carpet guy's diagram and will consequently be done in a different color. I so don't care.) We lived; we laughed; we moved on. My friend So Lovely had a wonderful blog post recently on the origins of the phrase "This too shall pass." Like most people, I had always assumed this phrase referred to bad times—and of course it does. But guess what? Not only.

2. It won't always be like this (reprise). Those airy highs, the giddy squeals, the heartthrob moments—they too shall pass. Get over yourself.

3. If you post it in the "Free" section of Craigslist, they will come. I used to have lots of furniture. I don't anymore. I sold a few pieces, but most of it I gave away. Some went to Goodwill, some went to other worthy charitable organizations. None of it went to the sneery man from the Salvation Army. ("Pfft," he said, waving an arm over The Child's trundle bed in perfect condition. "This is heavy. And I have to think about me.") But Craigslist's Free section? A fantastic human drama playing out for an audience of one. People actually audition for you when you offer something for free. "This would be perfect for my little boy to put his crayons in!" "I grew up with those books, and I want to read them to my three girls." "We've been looking for one of these for a long time!" And they don't try to bargain you down from $40 to $20 because, you know, it's free. Time elapsed from the time I posted The Child's trundle bed on Craigslist to the time it left my house? 45 minutes.

4. Maximizing your pain is also minimizing your pain. Not everyone chooses to refurbish their house, sell their house, move across the country and edit a 650-page cookbook at the same time. Not everyone is a masochist. But there are definite advantages to boxing things up once and getting them out of your house once. I can't say the same for the cookbook.

5. Certain things stink. I have a cough I didn't used to have. I chalk it up to the new paint and the new carpet and the newly reglazed, cartoonishly white kitchen sink and resurfaced shower pan. They look beautiful, but they smell. Get out of the house.

6. Certain things should never be said out loud. "Maybe no one will take this middle seat between the aisle and the window." "Wow, traffic is moving really nicely." "I think we've had as many plumbing problems as one household can be expected to have."

7. It's all relative. We had no kitchen sink and no dishwasher (poor us!) for a week. Our friend Pam had no discernible hot water in her apartment through the entire summer and into the fall, and didn't complain to her landlord because her landlord's husband was unwell. When the truth finally came out, the landlord was not grateful for Pam's thoughtfulness; instead, she trudged up the rickety stairs to Pam's apartment and complained about having to put in a new hot water heater. "I'm the tenant," Pam explained. "You're the landlord. It's your responsibility." Did I mention she had no bathroom for several days after her floor fell on her downstairs neighbor's head? I no longer have any complaints.

8. Happy Hours are the answer to everything. Most things. Okay, some things. Nothing in the fridge? A new sink you can't touch? Fumes you can't breathe? Bring on the $3 beers and free hot dogs!

9. Your home leaves you before you leave home.
Our place looks kind of astonishingly great. It's clean, it's light, it's spacious. It's no showplace, but it's kind of a nicely Zen blank canvas. I think even Miss Hepburn would approve of its New England austerity. I thought I'd be kicking myself around the block for having waited so long to do these things. Instead, I realized something: It's not my house anymore. I'm just caretaking it for the next owner. And that's okay. This domestic Master Cleanse has helped me divorce myself from my home.

10. This too shall come. We're in New York now, preparing for a brand-new kind of Thanksgiving. The Child will arrive from college tomorrow. We're putting together the new bookshelves. The new futon chair was delivered today. It's a little bit of chaos, but that's okay. If it's chaos, it must be home.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Madwoman of Chaillot

So far I've only cried twice. Okay, I also choked up a little when my washing machine hose sprang a leak, but I hadn't had any coffee yet and it all just seemed like a little too much.

Once upon a time—say, a week plus one day ago—I had things down to a science: painting would be finished by Monday, kitchen floor installed Tuesday, new carpet a week later, furniture arranged in pleasing configurations, meet with the realtors and get out of Dodge for Thanksgiving.


The carnival began last week, when my sainted brother-in-law and nephew arrived from Marin County to paint the place. Bob is a singing Irishman—he sings when he wakes up, he sings when he drives off at 7 in the morning to a painting job, he sings through the day, he sings before dinner, he sings as he goes to bed.

But the song died in his throat and his smile froze in place as he took in the water-stained vaulted cottage-cheese ceilings, the still-overcrowded bookshelves, and the godawful decorative remnants left from the previous owners: fringe glued on to every single shelf edge; metallic gold wrapping paper encircling every closet rod; warped plastic shelf liners. Incredibly, these things had seemed sort of amusingly kitsch to me when I moved in, so I left them alone and forgot about them. Ten years later, it was like waking up in the middle of a nightmare.

As Bob and Terry started prepping the rooms, I ran around documenting the traces that were about to disappear under a new layer of Swiss Coffee-colored paint. The measurements on the doorframe...

...the wall in The Child's room.

I created arrangements of The Child's things and e-mailed the pictures to her at college, asking, "Keep or toss?"


My beloved and I worked maniacally to box things up, schlepping stuff from room to room to try and stay ahead of the painting wave. The cat was not pleased by this turn of events.

Meanwhile, I fielded dozens of Craigslist e-mails from people coveting my solid pine desk hutch, my sweet antique-ish dresser, my papa-san chair. A trail of young people who'd just moved to L.A. from Virginia and Texas and Long Island trooped in and out of the clutter, bearing off my possessions.

In the midst of the chaos, my three angelic sisters brought over a generous picnic lunch that we ate all together on the sundeck, along with Lucy the pug, who enjoyed her munches in the shade of a Monet umbrella:

When everyone left that day, it was time for my first meltdown. Amid the paint cans, the ladders, the draped furniture and the constantly migrating cat-food bowl, my beloved—who four months ago had neck surgery and has been trying to go easy on his back—expressed his anger.

He'd been trying to tell me for months that we weren't doing enough to prepare for this moment, and found himself beyond frustrated by the chaotic condition of things in the house. Plus his arm was aching from all the lifting and from a sudden wrench while removing a heavy wooden CD rack from the wall. And the worst thing: He felt his opinion didn't matter to me at all.

I reacted with typical Hepburnesque flair: I sobbed snottily, lurching from room to room in search of the Kleenex box that I'd packed in the back closet.

He was right, and I felt horrible. I'd been trying to continue living a normal life, taking a box to the Goodwill here and there as a token gesture of packing up, while dismissing his warnings as overly dour and pessimistic. I wanted to show him I was true to my word—that we'd be out of L.A. by the end of the year—but I wasn't working with him as a partner in the moving process. It was a ridiculous, self-defeating exercise, and it crashed on me that night.

Somehow we talked it out, I relinquished some control, we got rid of more stuff, the painting was nearly finished, and we began to see the outlines of a pared-down, organized new home. The fog started to lift.

Then my downstairs neighbor showed up at our front door on Saturday morning and announced that water was dripping on his head from his kitchen ceiling.

The next few days were like a Keystone Kops movie—by way of Fellini.

Monday: 8 plumbers, 3 painters, 10 hours in a single kitchen. Dishwasher removed. Holes gouged in walls. Leak determined to be coming from the drain line.

Tuesday: 2 different plumbers, 5 hours. Drain line replaced. Dripping continues. Leak determined to be coming from the risers. Risers to be replaced tomorrow. Dishwasher sits in middle of dining room. Wash dishes in bathroom sink. Watch pool of water spread across bathroom floor, from newly sprung leak in drain pipe under bathroom sink. Susan has quiet weep over realization that there's no such thing as home anymore.

Wednesday a.m.: Put load of laundry in washing machine. Turn on washing machine. Water spews from water valve.

Wednesday p.m.: Lone plumber arrives with single screwdriver. Announces he's there to remove wood siding then go away. Susan turns into screaming banshee (Susan is never a screaming banshee). No risers replaced. No use of kitchen sink.

Wednesday p.m. postscript: Plumber with screwdriver fixes leaks in bathroom sink and in washing machine faucet. Susan regrets neurotic screaming banshee behavior.

Thursday: 2 plumbers, 13 1/2 hours. Shiny new copper risers in place. Delivering clear, rust-free water to kitchen faucet for first time in 10 years.

Friday: Dishwasher sits in middle of dining room. The carnival continues.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Iron Petticoat

Me: Miss Hepburn, I had the strangest dream. I—

KH: Oh good lord, not a dream story. Don't you know that dreams are never as interesting to the listener as they are to the dreamer?

Me: Actually, yes, I know that, but—

KH: Well, if you're determined to tell it.

Me: I dreamed that I was chaperoning Bill Clinton to his surprise birthday party. Madeline Albright was there, of course, and Tippi Hedren. And I was trying to keep track of who was ordering the steak and who was ordering the lamb by poking holes in a dinner roll with the tines of a fork. Needless to say, this wasn't very—

KH: What on God's green earth are you talking about?

Me: Yes, exactly, it was very confusing. And sort of upsetting.

KH: You must be easily upset.

Me: People were waiting...I couldn't keep track of anything...Bill was getting annoyed...

KH: And what do you think this means?

Me: Well, it may have to do with the couch.

KH: Of course it does.

Me: The 900-pound couch is finally gone. There are huge divets in the carpet where it used to be. After getting rejected by the Salvation Army—

KH: You do have a gift.

Me: —I put it on Craigslist under "Free" and a nice guy and his big, strong teenage son came and took it away.

KH: Excellent. The couch needed to go. So what does this have to do with Bill Clinton?

Me: Well, nothing, obviously. But we're in a state of chaos here.

KH: Oh, you don't know the meaning of chaos. Have you seen me play a Chinese peasant in Dragon Seed?

Me: Okay, "chaos" is a little strong. "Disarray."

KH: You're selling your home and moving across the country. Did you expect to remain arrayed?

Me: I donated my wedding china to the UCLA Thrift Store, and the framed James and the Giant Peach poster from The Child's room. We're shredding years' worth of ancient bank statements. We have carpet samples on the floor and boxes everywhere. Some even have things in them.

KH: And?

Me: Well, that's it, I guess. I just feel so...scattered. So out of order.

KH: It's the disorder before the order, that's all. Think of the disorder I put poor Cary Grant through in Bringing Up Baby. And that ended happily, didn't it?

Me: It did.

KH: And you do realize you're not the first person ever to do this?

Me: Yes, of course I do. It's just odd, watching your life history evaporate in front of your eyes.

KH: Oh, let's avoid the melodrama, shall we? Joan Crawford you are not.

Me: Sorry.

KH: Now just roll up your sleeves and dive right in. Do the work.

Me: I am.

KH: No, you're not. You're sitting here talking to me. Go to it! Work clockwise! Don't touch anything twice! Take pictures of things to remember them by if you must, then throw them out! Take charge!

Me: Yes, ma'am!

KH: Just don't ask me to help.