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Pickle Me This

May 4, 2020

Open House, by Jane Christmas

Something that truly shocks me are the number of attractive book covers identical in palette to my hideous bathroom, a bathroom whose hideousness I can blame on the fact that I don’t own a house, have never bought a house. The pink tiles and green blue tub are not something I ever would have chosen, but I have grown comfortable with them (and with the mildewed grouting) because it’s been home for 12 years now, and we live very comfortably here with rent that’s as affordable as my bathroom is ugly. (Which is to say: VERY)

But I have always been fascinated by houses, and how people live inside them, which is why I peruse real estate listings for fun, which is how I discovered my childhood home is currently for sale, and spent Friday morning virtually touring the place as in a dream. Which is why I was also a fan of the British property show Location Location Location when I lived in England, a nation whose sense of house and home is peculiar and fascinating, and felt very proud to rent a terrace house of my own (albeit just a two-up two-down, with nary a bay window), a photo of which hangs in my living room today (naturally with the bins out front). All of which makes me an ideal reader for Open House, Canadian Jane Christmas’s memoir of an extensive renovation on a Victorian terrace in Bristol she purchased with her third husband after their dream of living in a seaside town was scuppered by a variety of factors including SEAGULLS. Throughout the book, she examines her propensity for moving (she has moved 32 times!), her peripatetic childhood (and her many childhood homes in suburban Toronto, her marital homes, the places she lived in gritty 1980s Hamilton as a single mother.

The book has all the appeal of MLS listings, but with stories that don’t need to be guessed at. Instead, with characteristic candour, humour and flair, Christmas strips her life to the studs, and ruminates fascinatingly on notions of home and the places where we make them.

January 23, 2020

Ten Years

I had some strange feelings about reflecting on the 2010s, mostly because I didn’t. There was a meme going around Instagram stories on New Year’s Eve in which we were supposed to list a highlight from each year, and I even tried to post it, but couldn’t figure out how to get the text to fit, which maybe means that the 2010s were the decade in which I stopped being technologically savvy.

But also, the years all blend together, and so much stayed the same. The decade before was much more filled with upheaval and revolution (they were my 20s after all) but in the 2010s were where the pieces started to fit. I stopped having babies, I began to have something like a career, I finally started publishing books, I made some wonderful new friendships, and maintained old ones. It’s been good, but the decade itself, its distinction, just seems particularly arbitrary. Like—even more than a decade should.

Or do I only think that because when the decade started, I was sitting in the very same place that I’m sitting right now?

Okay. not the exact same place. (We finally bought a new couch, remember?) But the same address, our apartment, which we moved into twelve years ago this April, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I moved in as half of a young married couple, and now I’ve got two kids and I’m forty, and have been married almost 15 years. The little kids who lived next door moved out and went to university, and then moved back in again, although it didn’t do me much good when they did, because now they’re too old to babysit. But, as the middle section of To the Lighthouse, so astutely put it: Time Passes.

Imagining our own story as told from the perspective of the house as Woolf does in her novel (except with less war and death). The people coming and going, coats and jackets hung up on hooks and taken down again, early morning alarm clocks and dinners, and house guests, and holidays, and the quiet weeks where we’ve all gone away, and coming home again, an explosion of luggage, and the babies arriving, and late nights with the lights on while the world sleeps, and the babies grow, and all the books that come in and those that go back out again (returned to the library, or left on the garden walls for any takers), and the birthday parties, play dates, first day of schools, pencilled lines in the door-frame measuring from small to tall, and boots and shoes and sandals in a pile at the door, and the triumphs and disappointments, throughout anxiety and contentment, and these walls have contained it all. Even as spare rooms turned into nurseries and cribs turned into bunk-beds, and empty space turned into clutter—Lego, puzzles, and play-doh—and that ring on the carpet from where I put down a teapot and it melted. How places seem to hold us, even more than time does, and how a single place can hold so much, and so can a life.

July 25, 2012

Our shoebox dollhouse

Stuart has taken up running, which is exciting, and means that he bought a new pair of shoes. Also that Harriet was crabby on Saturday while Stuart was out for his run and I was making dinner, and so I distracted her by proposing that we build a shoebox dollhouse. And naturally, the first step was to consult the internet. We found these instructions, and got to work, painting the walls, selecting the wallpaper (which was origami paper). As with every physical object I’ve ever created (except for Harriet), the result is a little bit sloppy. I think the creator of the prototype was a perfectionist, while I am a half-ass-est, and they also didn’t use old kitchen rags for flooring. I don’t think I’m going to be sewing tiny throw cushions either or a bedskirt, but I’m still quite thrilled with the result and Harriet is forbidden to colour on it or put stickers on it. (I am absolutely no fun). I did knit a tiny bedspread (and incidentally, we’ve taken to referring to bedspreads as counterpanes ever since we learned what a counterpane was). We still want to make a few more things– a bookshelf, a clock. Note the lace curtains, and the cool posters in the bedroom. Anyway, Harriet has enjoyed playing with it, even while restricted from sticker putting-onning. And I’m just a little bit in love with the dollhouse too.

May 5, 2010

House Post 3: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is Joan Didion, if Joan Didion had grown up in New Jersey instead of Sacramento, and was self-deprecating instead of self-effacing. Daum writes with Didion’s rhythm, with her cadences, and she is similarly preoccupied with nostalgia. She is also a bit David Sedaris, if he were Joan Didion. I picked up her essay collection My Misspent Life last year, and bunked off work to read it in a day (true story), and this week I devoured her latest book with just as much relish.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the story of Daum’s relationship with domiciles, beginning with her childhood home, to too many trips with a futon up long flights of stairs in university, the New York apartment of her dreams, when she became too old for roommates, her famous flight to Lincoln, Nebraska (which was mostly due to a lifelong obsession with Little House on the Prairie). In Nebraska, Daum flirted with the idea of buying a farm, cohabited with her boyfriend, became too fond of screen-door slams, and then ran away to California. Once she was there, living in an apartment at the top of a canyon, she decided to once again buy a farm in Nebraska. This very nearly happened, except it didn’t, and then she came back to Los Angeles and finally bought a house there. The house was not without its quirks. And proved crowded once Daum had the “supreme good fortune” of finding “a good, smart, sane man”, and they decided to opt out of “nohabitation” (a Daum neologism, when a couple lives proper at neither one person’s abode nor the other’s).

I have missed a few cottages and apartments. Daum was epically of no fixed address during her twenties and early-thirties, perpetually read to pull up stakes and move on. Eternally seeking the perfect place to live, she was able to avoid properly committing to anything. Moreover, her relationship to where she lived was tied up with her sense of self; she would have to learn how to be at home, which would require her to learn how to be.

In many ways, Daum’s experience is a hyperbolic version of what happens to everyone– how the places we’ve lived are the stories of who we’ve been. There is much familiar here for anyone who has lived with roommates, who has lived in dodgy apartments,  who has house-sat and been a a stand-in in somebody else’s unfortunate life. Daum’s relationship with buying real-estate in particular will strike a pretty universal chord– realtor relationships, the house that got away, the heartbreak of wanting and not getting, the pressure,  how you start boring friends with real-estate talk, and eventually finding and buying a house (with all its compromises) and the adventure of home-ownership begins.

A book about such first-world problems is the kind some readers will love to hate, citing its solipsism, but Daum is an engaging prose stylist and writes with admirable candour. Her book avoids quarter-life-crisis-y angst by looking back from far-away enough that such angst appears appropriately idiotic, and she has honed a fine sense of the ridiculous. As Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and (as I wrote) in order to make something else of the messes we’ve made. So it’s a book like this, and it’s laughter, and an ending that is bittersweet.

May 4, 2010

House Post 2

I’d been thinking about houses anyway, on account of Meghan Daum’s wonderful book, when I found this book at a yard sale for 50 cents on Saturday. A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Betty Fraser was published in 1978, and I can’t decide whether I like the text or pictures better. Never mind, they’re perfectly complementary.

The book starts off fairly tamely– a hill is a house for an ant, a hive a house for a bee, webs for spiders, and nests for birds, and then the refrain, “and a house is a house for me.” The story continues through various other abodes, returning to that house for me– which might be a treehouse, a fort under a tablecloth, a snow fort, or a huge cardboard box. But then things get a little bit crazy: “Perhaps I have started farfetching, perhaps I am stretching things some…”. Because a carton is a house for a cracker, a sandwich is a house for ham, a hat a house for a head. Because “once you get started in thinking, you think and you think and you think. How pockets are houses for pennies, And pens can be house for ink.”

The illustrations are to get lost in, managing to be both exploding and detailled at the very same time. Full of secrets, jokes, and delightful things, and flowing right off of the page. I love the be-spectacled duchess, in bed with her knitting, her books and her banjo. And yes, the tea page, which was created with the sole purpose of thrilling me, I think.

“A box is a house for a teabag. A teapot’s a house for some tea. If you pour me a cup and I drink it all up, Then the teahouse will turn into me.”

May 3, 2010

House Post 1

I just finished reading Megan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, which I’ll be reviewing later this week. I wanted to read Daum’s book because I adored her collection of essays My Misspent Youth when I read it last year, but also because she was writing about houses– the ones she loved, the ones she’s loathed, the ones that got away. She writes about roommates, renting, renovations and running away. About MLS obsession, unfortunate apartments, and the experience if purchasing a home of her own. I’m obsessed with this stuff, and always have been, and just so you don’t think I’m jumping on the Meghan Daum obsessed with real-estate bandwagon, I offer you the contents of the journal I kept for school in grade 1. Keep in mind that this is most of the entire book, which means that my range of subject matter was awfully limited.

I’ve always loved drawing houses. This is significant because I’ve never much loved drawing anything else, but the basic details of a house were so well within my poor artistic grasp– square windows the t-frames, a door (with maybe a window for a garnish?), obligatory chimney and triangle roof. The possibilities for variation are limitless– curtains, shubbery, smoke in the chimney, shutters, a garage, curving path from the door. I loved illustrations of houses too in the books I read, particularly those of the whole house at work with the fourth wall removed, and you could see the staircases connecting all the floors, and each room fulfilling its own specific purpose, the life going on within it. (For some reason, the most fascinating houses were those in trees– I remember Brambley Hedge, and the Berenstein Bears in particular, and how I could stare at the cross section drawings of these tree houses and actually “play” with them for hours).

Houses in television are so important– I remain obsessed with the exterior shots of houses that always preceded any 1980s/1990s’ sitcom’s return from commercial break. These houses’ interiors too, and the ways in which they didn’t match the outsides, and the rooms we rarely saw (like the Keatons’ elusive dining room), and how the Facts of Life set was as familiar to me as my own living room. How none of these houses ever had actual foyers, and how staircases and such would get moved around between seasons and we just weren’t supposed to notice. Whole TV shows based around domicles– Melrose Place! And houses as extensions of their characters– Casa Walsh, and Dylan’s house (because he lived alone), and Kelly Taylor’s ultra modern nightmare. The layout of the Salingers’ house from Party of Five is indelibly etched upon my mind, and clearly, yes, I spent my teenage years watching terrible television. But still, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at Monica’s apartment from Friends.

But it’s houses in books in particular, which I had to imagine up all by myself. How LM Montgomery wrote about houses– Lantern Hill, Silverbush, Green Gables, Ingleside, New Moon. The English houses– Thornfield Manor, Wuthering Heights, Manderlay, Wildfell Hall. The house Isabel Archer came from in America, with no windows that faced the street, and the Ramsays’ house in To the Lighthouse, Gatsby’s house, Dora Rare’s in The Birth House, Howards End (which was ALL about real estate), Rose’s childhood home in Who Do You Think You Are?, Daisy Stone Goodwill’s house in Ottawa where she raised her family in The Stone Diaries.

Unlike Meghan Daum, however, I don’t own my own home. This is partly because paying a mortgage would necessitate me having a job (heaven forbid), but also because I wouldn’t live in my house anymore. Because I really love my house. Daum writes about the struggle of learning to be at home, to live where are you rather than always looking at where to go next. She thinks ownership is necessary to achieve this, but we’ve managed it without a mortgage. The house is home, and we love it because of and in spite of. The neighbourhood, redolent with blooms at this times of year and trees overhead. The tiles in the kitchen, and the how the sun comes through the kitchen door at lunch time, and how you can only run the washer OR the dryer if you don’t want to blow a fuse, and how the sun comes into the bedroom in late afternoon, and we can see the CN Tower in the winter (though the summer hides it with trees full of leaves), and my wonderful attic bedroom (which makes me sad only because I know every bedroom I ever have after this one will be a disappointment), and the trees and the breeze that keep us cool in the summer, and the huge living room windows, and how Harriet’s door doesn’t shut, and the backwards kitchen taps, and our en-suite that doesn’t have a door, and the deck and our fire escape, and the fireplace, and the wide hallway, the squirrels in the attic and the mice under the floor. I used to think that I wanted to buy a house, but then realized what I really wanted was a new apartment, and after two years in this one, I’ve still got no urge to go.

Pre-Order my New Novel: Out October 27


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