Skip to content

Tag: houses

Home-word Bound #1

Social distancing guidelines now include no more than 10 people gathered together in one place, and, anyway, to stay home. I grew up one of ten kids. The doors and windows to our house were never locked. I never even had a key to the place. And friends and friends of friends roamed freely across the threshold, in and out. A restriction of no more than 10 at any one time might have come as a welcome rule for my parents – but they rarely objected to visitors.

I’ve lived at 19 different addresses over time, never alone, not including the room in the garage at the back of our lot my dad and I built when I got back from the army and found my digs in the house usurped by younger siblings.

But I’ve lived in the house I’m in now for 30 years. It was built in 1907 in what was then a mostly truck farming community or trolley commute from downtown Portland. The street name is now Southeast 69th Avenue, but it was originally named East View Street. A house this old comes with stories, particularly one that has been home to several households over the years. Those stories are often told by neighbors who have overlapped stays with other neighbors.

Not long after we first moved in, I was digging around in the backyard and uncovered a large clam shell. The occupants just prior to us lived in the house 12 years before we moved in. The shell, we learned from one of our old-timer neighbors, predated those years. There had been a family, lived in our house, who hosted South Pacific sailors who regularly came to port for the annual Rose Festival (the first Rose Festival Parade was held downtown in 1907). One year, one of the sailors brought the shell as a gift for the house hosts. We learned from that same old-timer neighbor that another year one of the sailors died in the house. He collapsed from a heart attack in the entry room. His name was Joe. His host would later also die in the house, in the downstairs bathroom, also from a heart attack. His name was also Joe.

Lately, homebound by local decree, I’ve increased my walks around the neighborhood, reflecting on houses. Local neighborhood lore tells of one house that was once a tuberculosis sanatorium, another that was a brothel, another that was a small barbershop, another that was a local post office. It’s not a neighborhood of any spectacular historical interest. While a few of the houses might maintain historical value, there’s no doubt that in another hundred years they will all be replaced. The clam shell might still be somewhere around, though. Maybe something still will be living in it.

From Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Act II:

Ham. Then is doomsday near: but your news is not true. Let me question more in particular: what have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guil. Prison, my lord!

Ham. Denmark’s a prison.

Ros. Then is the world one.

Ham. A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Ros. We think not so, my lord.

Ham. Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Ros. Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.

Ham. O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Looking east at Mt Hood from Mt Tabor, 1903 (Oregon Historical Society)
Mt Tabor is the dark, tree covered hill middle right, 1907 (OHS)

The House in Summer (for ZZ & Chloe)

The house is not a mystery
that’s made from trees and history
from every old nook and cranny
you hear the voice of a nanny.

Papa pops up to make early
the coffee and lets out Zoe
the cat points like a unicorn
the approach of a vacuum horn.

The grand girls all day play
pretend puzzles of their world
while the board games nap
gathering light into a lens.

At night the windows fly
boat sails lift the sky
climb the moon high
and breath falls to a sigh.

Untie Tilled

Flummoxes

Stupefied

fact toyed, act torn, him worried, cat a gory, high pot and noose, feet shore, rumpled thick skin, cloud rains notoriously his, his story

stand dulled lard, aunt tie, ear merge, knit knot, sullen wullen, negligee ant

puss swill, hog wash, bass inn, trump pet, your bane, miss aria, melon cafard, old gourd, nouvelle vague vouge vaudautomobile, sue dough

moor biled,
awe towed,
skip it
rock it

stop it,
stoop id,
rinse off,
he goes,
soup her

droop ball
notes so bad
over the wall.

add dress &
suit of blue
dyed wool, tie
prep
position

adove
beyawn
icross
the oh
shuns

 

 

We lived for a time on Oak Street, in a courtyard lot of four houses across from the high school. The two sets of houses faced one another and were connected by arched walkways. All four kitchen windows looked into the courtyard. Each house was the same: a small white stucco square with center front door into rectangular living room with door to bedroom with closet, bathroom with porcelain tub and two doors, one from the bedroom, the other to a back porch with back door, kitchen nook, kitchen with door to living room, so that we could walk in circles around the inside of the house. The cat loved this circular house.

I had just got back from Active Duty, and was driving a VW bus that I left parked on the street under the trees out front, even though there were four garages attached to one another but separate from the houses, in the rear of the lot. The houses were clean but rough stucco with red clay tile roofs. In the time we lived there, about a year, we never closed our kitchen window over the sink. The cat came and went through the window, and over time the flowering plant outside the kitchen started to grow through the window over the sink. The house was well-lit, four windows in the living room. Ours was one of the houses in the back of the lot, in the northeast corner. It was a swell place. We had no phone service and no television. We did have a stereo system: a receiver, turntable, and two speakers.

In the house across from us lived Ms. Palette, a frisky old lady who grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, zinnias, and marigolds, and she was visited once a month by a son who checked up on her and brought her provisions, including cigarettes and wine. When she was not in her garden, she was inside watching her television. Early one evening, we were startled by police, paramedics, and firemen rushing into the courtyard, taking up positions outside the doors, but their focus was on Ms. Palette’s house. She came to the door and let the police inside. We gathered with our neighbors in the yard. Apparently, Ms. Palette had experienced some sort of break in and thought she was having a heart attack and had called the police to say she needed an ambulance. As it turned out, she had been watching a cops and robbers show on TV, and she confused what she was watching on the show with the reality within her house. On the show, someone was breaking into a house, frightening its occupant, and Ms. Palette grew confused, thinking someone was breaking into her house and that she needed an ambulance. We tried to contact her son, but no one knew his name or number. The police suggested we take turns checking up on Ms. Palette daily. The emergency responders left, and we went in to say hello to Ms. Palette, who was sitting on her couch looking stupefied. The television had been turned off.

We used to walk up Main Street into town to the grocery. Not long after Ms. Palette’s confused television experience, we were walking home from the store, each carrying a bag of groceries, and we passed the realtor’s office, and in the window one of the photographs caught my eye. It was my VW bus, parked on Oak Street outside our courtyard houses, and the houses were for sale, and they had, apparently, already sold. When we got home, we called our landlord. Yes, he’d put the property up for sale, no sign, no notice. A developer hit it like a raptor. Our landlord was waiting to tell us, not wanting to disappoint us. We were momentarily stupefied. Soon, we received eviction notices. The four houses were destroyed and a modern apartment building erected on the lot, sans courtyard and garden and trees. We moved on, not looking back, growing less stupefied with each move.

 

Unpacking the Aphorism to Pull Out the Pith

Thoreau valued simplicity and wisdom, yet his writing style is not simple, and the reader must unpack the aphorism to pull out the pith. Anecdote becomes parable, reminding us of Alice and the Duchess: “Tut, tut, child! Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” Thoreau’s claims, statements he knows will invite disagreement, are supported with metaphors, which lead to ambiguous explanations. Often, he strings together claims with reasons that at first glance seem not to follow. What unifies his paragraphs is not always clear, and his wit is often housed in satire. Here’s a short example that illustrates, the paragraph quoted in whole:

“All that I could say, then, with respect to farming on a large scale, (I have always cultivated a garden,) was, that I had my seeds ready. Many think that seeds improve with age. I have no doubt that time discriminates between the good and the bad; and when at last I shall plant, I shall be less likely to be disappointed. But I would say to my fellows, once for all, As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail” (78).

James Thurber once drew a cartoon of a man walking up to his house after work, the lines of the rear of the house rising up over the roof to reveal a caricature of his wife hiding behind his house, a part of the house, awaiting his arrival, as if to startle him. We’re not sure if he’s ready for the surprise or not. The cartoon might present an unflattering view of marriage, combining the mortgage of the structure with the mortgage of one’s freedom (one marries a house, furnished with a spouse), but it might help explain Thoreau’s view of owning the farm: it’s like having a bed in the county jail because one can’t escape it. “Most men,” Thoreau writes, “appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have” (32).

Thoreau is rightfully proud that he builds his own house on Walden Pond, but he’s most proud that its proportions are in sync with his four necessaries. Nothing is exaggerated: the house enjoys no wrap around porch, no great room, no dining room separate from living room, no two car garage; it’s a one-room house. The house affords no hyperbole. Yet, like the complexity of his prose, erecting the house wasn’t a simple job, and he had help, in the form of tools borrowed, and, “At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from necessity, I set up the frame of my house” (41). Note the stubborn insistence on independence: he could have done it all himself; he welcomed the help to be neighborly. He begins to live in his house on July 4th, Independence Day, more irony, yet he has proven that “the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually” (45). And, of equal benefit, he won’t “forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter” (42). Thoreau again foreshadows Buckminster Fuller, who showed that specialization leads to extinction: “Where is this division of labor to end?” Thoreau asks, “and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself” (42).

Now that he’s built his house, and owns it unencumbered, his necessaries squared away, he’s free to enjoy his stay in the woods.

Related: