Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What we want


To save money, Hetty Green ate her oatmeal cold. Rather than squander soap, she only washed the hem of her garments. When her young son injured his leg, she dressed him in rags and carried him to the charity ward.

Dubbed the Witch of Wall Street, Hetty died in 1916, the richest woman in America. In relative terms, when individual wealth is compared to the overall GDP at a given time, Hetty ranks a little below Bill Gates and well above John D. Rockefeller.
Her son, leg amputated after lack of proper medical care, dedicated his life to squandering the family fortune. It wasn’t easy. Eventually even his toilets wore diamonds.

How much life do we spend just trying not to be our parents. To what ends of the earth would we not go.

I grew up in the subdivisions, the equivalent of today’s gated communities. No matter where in America we moved, the same three or four models followed us across the country: French Provincial, English Tudor, American Colonial -- each distinct from the other primarily in the roofal and garagal areas. The street names always sounded like air fresheners: Lavendar Hill, Heatherton Road, Cedar Glen. “Lemon Mint Lane -- Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” My mom would say.

Things could never be new enough, we could never change houses fast enough, for Mom, who spent her childhood in old homes with old things. Our houses functioned more as placeholder than home, what with the rolled out sod and shoulder-high trees. By the time all the painting was finished, it was time to move.

If you can’t go home again, then which of the dozen or so places can I not go home again to? I began to wonder what it felt like when roots ran deep.

When our family drove through a town, the real part of town, 3rd Street for example, on the way to our air-freshener avenues, we’d pass old craftsman or farmhouses built around the 20’s or 30’s, houses that looked like they just might have an Atticus Finch somewhere close by, houses with giant sycamores in the front yard, and tire swings, and people on porches.

I knew families that moved around the country made more money. That I would go to college was a given. With every new city, our future became that much more secure. And families that didn’t move, well, they were the people on porches. Still, I envied them – oh many things. The tree tall and strong enough to support a swing. The porch with its sofas and chairs, a place to sip ice tea on hot summer evenings with the same neighbors, year after year.

It never occurred to me that the kids on porches might have some dreams of their own. Dreams different from mine. Dreams of new houses with the smell of fresh paint and new sod. A place free of baggage, where everything, even treetops, seemed within reach.

47 comments:

  1. I was thinking, "KB should bee posting her latest news on her blog today." That's what I wood want.

    How much life do we spend just trying to get money. To spend or waste. E.g., when citizens routinely & carelessly do their tax rtns. doing Yet, is it ever enuf?

    Now, I gotta get your cold oatmeal outta my mind. At least it's not in my stomache.

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  2. Miss Janey dreamed of a house, not a series of apartments, then trailers, then apartments again. Her dream of a home of her own wasn't realized until mid-life. That's fizzled for now, but at least she didn't end up back in a trailer.

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  3. Thought provoking and well-written as usual. I've always wanted a front porch. Our new house has a courtyard instead.

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  4. Someone wise and very dear to me kept telling me as I chased a career "...its not how much you have that will make you happy, but how happy you are with what you have."
    I stopped chasing and now my wants are very basic..like waking up in the morning. I love your musings.

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  5. So are you finally in one of those old houses with a big tree and swing? My father was in the military so we moved every 3 years, sometimes sooner, and never had any say about the type of house we'd be living in. I didn't love any of them. I wonder what your father was in? Banking? Diplomatic? CIA? (I put that last one in to get you going).

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  6. Big front porches are back in limited release, but more as an architectural detail.

    GG

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  7. Another great piece, Karin. Although we didn't move around, I lived in a pretty decent suburban house; one that I could not afford today, like the Altos of South Pasadena. Now I get to live in a house built in 1927, that has charm. The older houses near where I lived were nice too. I never really thought about wanting to live in one. I just figured that the people who lived in them had gotten there many years earlier.

    I used to know a lawyer who would urge his clients to spend their money. "If you don't spend it," he'd say, "your kids will."

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  8. Funny, I grew up in the fifties . Unlike all of my friends, my mom worked and my dad did some of the time. All I can remember is wishing that one day when I came home from school, my mom would be there.
    V

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  9. A fabulous piece Karin.

    I lived on a street called Aquamarine once. It intersected Peridot Ln.

    Ouch.

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  10. What price a leg?

    I would sit on my front patio and admire the hills, except someone walked off with the table and chairs a few years back and I've been too annoyed to replace them.
    Great post--kiddo--

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  11. Poor broken blogger, comments aren't showing. But I'll try anyway. CP, sorry about the oatmeal. Miss Janey, I've never met you personally, but judging from what I read out your way, the fizzle is quite temporary. Bec, I don't have one either -- yet. Bayside, I learned that in a way harder than it needed to be. Bellis, to come. Earl, give us a blog tour. Virg, I generalize. Amy, let's do a Tim Burton, with streets like Aphid Alley. Dez, the trick I think is to put the broken furniture on the porch, not the good stuff.

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  12. I think I know the same attorney, Mr. Earl. His advice when putting together a trust and when I went through a divorce was very similar.

    I grew up in old neighborhoods. I've never lived in a new house. My current one is 60 years old and is aging nicely. In 1970, my parents moved to a new neighborhood in Orange County. When asked why, my dad's two main reasons were that he wanted to get out of the hot, smoggy weather in Glendale, and move away from overhead power lines. For the first two years, whenever I visited the weather was always foggy. He would get angry when I told him it was sunny and clear at my house. For some reason, he hated power lines. While he couldn't wait to get away from them, there's something about overhead utilities that I like. Can't explain it. I've never lived anywhere with underground utilities and once had a house with 3 power poles on the lot. I never thought about it, but perhaps it's Karin's theory that we want to be different from our parents that causes me to feel that way.

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  13. I moved around just like you and changed schools at least once in grade school, jr high, and high school. Your post reminded me of all the things I had wished for, including a dream house. But surprisingly, now that I'm an adult I can appreciate the chance I got to mean so many different people in so many different places. So I guess my dream house is actually where my family is :)

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  14. Another thoughtful post, KB. My parents are quite dissimilar to each other, so I don't try not to be either of them, otherwise I'd cancel myself out.

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  15. Oh, man, ya got me to thinking, remembering...

    That's what good writing is supposed to do. KB, you let us in a little bit again. But, it's us you're writing about.

    I just realized again I work in people's homes. That's why I care about what I do...

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  16. Cusen-sister, did you grow up waiting for "the other shoe to drop"? I guess that is why my brother always had imaginary friends - they traveled light and always relocated with us.

    When my folks said families had roots, I pictured their feet having literal roots, deep into the ground. Tumbleweeds are plants that used to have roots, ya know?

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  17. I love it when you guys tell stories. Kaori -- another normad! And you're right, just ask the queen of the nomads -- Brenda. Bandit, wish you were close enough to work on my house. It's a goofy 1923'er.

    DB, well that would have kept your dad far, far away from Altadena. I don't mind the overheads because the birds like them.

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  18. Me mother was raised on a farm and has NEVER stopped trying to claw her way to the "top" wherever that may be. I'm content to go back to her humble beginnings. At least THAT part isn't genetic!

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  19. Beautifully written, with just the right touch of melancholy. You KNOW I'm longing for something similar right about now....

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  20. It's god's way of keeping us all from bidding on the same house.

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  21. When my two daughters became adults with husbands and children of their, I tearfully apologized for not having provided the perfect quality of life for them when they were growing up.

    They replied that this was not what they remembered at all. They remembered fun times with each other, their mommy and their friends.

    Funny how in a child's mind things aren't necessarily in sync with adults' suppositions.

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  22. Very interesting post. Amazing how much our views of houses (among other things) are set by what we experienced as kids, whether that means looking for what we used to have or rebelling against it. I lived in a variety of cool old houses growing up, but mainly I dream about my grandparents big old house on the coast of Maine. Sigh.

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  23. I worked my entire life to escape the aesthetics and culture of small town life. Then, in my mid-30s I realized I'd unintentionally recreated it in my own So. Cal neighborhood.

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  24. We moved every other year of my life until I was in 6th grade, and I never went to a school for more than two years until high school. Some personalities can pull that off, but some just get slammed. In general, I think roots are good.

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  25. Bandit said it: you let us in, but it's us you're writing about. That's why we want to share our stories, too.

    My parents built our home in about 1960. My father had worked his way up from ranch hand to college professor, and he had carpentry skills. I grew up in the house he helped the contractor to build. He died in 1985 and my mother sold the house a couple of years later. I helped her clear it out and have the garage sale. Alone in that place after she'd gone, I threw myself on the floor and wept like I hadn't even wept for my father. Everything I remembered of him was there. Everything I remembered of me was there, too.

    I haven't sought to differentiate myself from my parents materially, but I have gone to the figurative ends of the earth, as you said, not to be like them emotionally. This is because I want to be happier than they figured out how to be. A beautiful home isn't enough.

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  26. I wonder if there have been any studies of people who moved a lot as children - what the effects were later in life. I've met a lot of people who, when asked where they're from, say, "Nowhere, we moved around a lot." I always feel disappointed for them that they aren't tied to a place.

    WV: slothea - what happens to people who don't move around enough!

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  27. Mister Earl, yes, there have been MANY studies of such nature. On the simple level, Wikipedia has one such collection of studies on the "Military brat (U.S. Subculture)" page - several studies are citied.

    Otherwise, many US cities have done studies (ex: Children on the Move, by the UNLV Ciber/CBER). Social geographers have many many studies, too. It is a science of its own... fed by its own. (The graduate school where I am a research librarian participates in the CBER program - interesting lot).

    And now I will crawl back into my hole. thank you.

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  28. Apparently Broken Blogger ate my mundane comment yesterday. I'll try again.

    I agree with Bandit and Petrea--you've struck a chord here for a lot of people, from various backgrounds. And I like the course of your ideas, from the obsessive thrift of that lady to your own feeling of rootlessness for the sake of upward mobility.

    Three thoughts--

    Maybe a house IS a home after all, or at least more so that the cliche acknowledges.

    In another cliche, maybe the grass IS always greener, no matter which side of the fence you're on.

    And roots, which I do have, albeit in a subdivision house, are both a warm extended family and a cage. To Hillary Clinton: I always realized a village was raising me, but even in hindsight, I won't say that was a consistently good thing--more good than bad, probably.

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  29. As I said, your stories are often my favorite part.

    I think it has worked out for you, P. Maybe because we're all such imperfect creatures, we look at our parents day after day and think, hmmm, that's not working quite right. I don't want to be this, I'd rather be that.

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  30. As we grow up and mature, we make decisions about which of our parents' behaviors we want to emulate when we become parents, and many that we tell ourselves we'll never do. Then, when we become parents, we find ourselves unintentionally behaving just as our folks did. How many of us have said to ourselves, "damn, I sound just like Dad/Mom and I swore I never would?" My 30-something children like to tell me that I am just like my dad, and I protest that I'm not. Yet I'm amused as I see much of myself in them, even though they adamantly deny it.

    We can't help it. We become them. Our best hope is that we become a better version.

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  31. It has worked out for me, yes. I have worked it out. And DB, I think we *can* help it. It depends on if we want to or not and how hard we're willing to work. Some traits are worth emulating. Some must be discarded if we're to avoid repeating the egregious mistakes of the past. We are not destined to be our parents if we're willing to make conscious choices.

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  32. I agree, Petrea, but it's a constant battle to overcome the tendency to revert back to how we were raised. It happens most often when stressed. The key is to recognize it.

    Perhaps it's time to start a 12- step program on how to escape your childhood.

    wv: retroble - reliving the troubles of childhood

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  33. There is a 12-step program on how to escape your childhood. Well, not exactly escape, but learn that there are other ways to react to things than the ones you adopted as a kid.

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  34. Highly disfunctional families aside, because that's a whole different issue, I just think we make certain choices, develop certain likes and dislikes that will separate the child from the parent. Could be as simple as what Banjo said -- someone else's grass looks inviting because we don't have to mow it or weed it.

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  35. It's certainly a complicated subject. Some of those who try the hardest not to be like their parents, end up more like them than they planned. It's the old story of trying to run from something - then it bites you. When I was a kid, I wanted to get away from my parents by going to the University of Mississippi or something like that - not really a cool thing for a kid from the SF suburbs to do in the mid-60s! As I got older, I learned ways to leave them behind, but it meant really understanding who they were.

    You hit a nerve with this piece Karin because you talked about something we don't usually think about - what it meant to live where we lived - what it said about our parents and what was driving them. We didn't think about these things growing up, but now we can look at them.

    My parents helped plan the way our new house was going to be. They had to dynamite a big rock to put in the foundation. We got to go over and watch them dynamite. That was cool for a 7-year-old. It was cool to have a new house with all the latest conveniences. Didn't know then what it meant in terms of upward mobility.

    You capture a certain feeling when you write about these childhood things - the same feeling I get from watching movies about the 50s. Movies with Julianne Moore. Movies like Far From Heaven.

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  36. what a great commentary on the nature of dreams, the lost American dream, and how we view the world as children.

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  37. We didn't move around much, but I always loved what I thought were ultramodern highrise apartments. My grandmother lived on the top floor of a large, very old 3 story building on the coast of Croatia (it had previously been a nunery to the Mariner's church across the street)...with a brick-work terrace wall - the same pattern I found at Barstow train station this week!!!! ... anyway, I hated her place...I loved our apartment in Tuzla on the 7th floor of a 10 story 'skyscraper'. When we moved to LA, I couldn't understand why people wanted to live in single family homes...then after a few years in Highland Park, I soooo wished to live in a new, suburban single-family home. And now, my son (even at 15) throws a fit if I mention moving from our townhome.
    A really wonderful piece, K. And what Ken Mac said too.
    WV - thrunc: Lots of baggage in that thrunc for all.

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  38. Tash, that's so funny. I would have loved your grandmother's grand old place and you would have loved our place on Greenlawn Drive.

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  39. There you go again. You don't even have to quote FSF to quote FSF.

    This is beautiful.

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  40. BTW, pull together enough of these and you'll have that memoir I keep bugging you to write.

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  41. Whether Greenlawn Drive is better may depend on the light or the time of day.

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  42. I’m a little late to the party. But that was such a great piece. You know, regardless where you grew up, I’m not sure you can ever really “go home” – people and places change so much.

    After I was gone to college, my folks sold the house where my siblings and I grew up. Then, maybe five years ago, “our house” was up for sale and I walked through it. I hardly recognized the house. Big trees we climbed were gone, a second story was added and the field next door developed. But, the tall closet doors that hung on the back porch were still there – the same closet doors on which my mom tracked our growth year after year, child by child. There on the doors, starting low and moving up the door, was a graphic outline of the history of our childhood. I really hated what the new owners had done to the house, but I wanted to rip off those closet doors and take them home.

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  43. At each birthday, my mother marked our height in pencil on the wall outside the pantry. Do parents still do that?

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  44. I did, Petrea. I moved to a home when my oldest was 6 months. We lived there for 16 years and I marked the height of my two children on a hallway door. Like Michael, I wanted to take the door with me when I sold the house. My kids were 14 and 16 at the time and the house we moved to was nicer and had a pool. But to this day, their fondest memories and their roots are tied to the house that measured their growth. I lived in four homes while growing up, but I still associate my youth with the one we lived in longest. I I still occasionally dream about living there. My dream is not living there as a child, but as an adult and I have moved back in. It's always a pleasant dream.

    I used to dream regularly about the first house I owned, a very small bungalow. I was newly married and had no money, but it was a pleasant time. For years afterwards, I would dream that we moved back to it. It never made sense because it was so small. One day, I drove by on the way to a park and noticed it that it was vacant and the power disconnected. The next week it was gone and soon replaced with a small apartment building. I never had another dream about that house.

    This has been a wonderful post and it's been interesting reading everyone's comments.

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  45. I agree, DB. Nothing but a blog can support this kind of back-and-forth storytelling with folks from all over the world and right down the street. This was special.

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