Category Archives: houzin

gratitude: it’s not just an ani difranco song

At the approach of Thanksgiving, it is customary to stop and consider what we are grateful for. When my head stops whirling and allows me a moment to think straight, I am grateful for many things:

  • Mr. Ben and I are progressing — slowly, and with many setbacks, but progressing — toward buying our very first apartment. We have signed the contract. We have interviewed with the co-op board. We have given over so much money already that I have to conceive of it as merely pretty-colored paper. If all goes well, we will give over even more money, walloping amounts of it, really, money we’ve been hoarding so closely it has never seen the light of day; and in exchange we will get 850 square feet of our own (2 bedrooms, 1 bath, 1 washer-dryer) in a small, well-run Prospect Heights co-op that has already paid off the mortgage on the building. Good? Good enough? The consensus seems to be yes but adult decisions like this make me squirrelly.
  • The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts just hosted me for two weeks, providing me with a bedroom and a studio and three meals a day, as well as the company to eat them with and scenery to admire while I chewed. I hiked with poets, played Scrabble with musicians and ping pong with Germans (and Future Famous Writers of America), gave a reading with a novelist, and spent most of my recreational time running back and forth to Sweet Briar College, building fires, and thrift-store shopping with flash-fiction writer / VCCA MVP Katie Schultz. No one got to know me except as the all-smiling, creatively-fulfilled version of myself.
A room of one's own
The view from my studio

More pictures here, for anyone curious about what a writer’s retreat looks like.

  • My job, for letting me off the leash to frolic in the rural Virginia wilderness.
  • My Brooklyn community, with whom I am celebrating Friendsgiving tonight. My contribution: A huge bowl of massaged kale salad, or dressed-up raw roughage a la New York Times. They’re all going to poop like champions later.
  • My family, for having something to celebrate and for knowing how it should be done. My mother, being the overachieving domestic war goddess that she is, put on three events this past weekend back-to-back-to-back, but the high point came on Saturday night when my brother Adam and his bride-to-be Jenn addressed the crowd. “We’re going to start a family,” announced Adam. The whole room inhaled in a whoosh; Jenn turned brick red. “Not right now!” she says. “I don’t get it,” said Adam over and over again, afterwards. “We’re getting married — isn’t that what starting a family means?”

Out of House and Home

Together, Mr. Ben and I have been preparing to embark on the incredible journey of Home Ownership. It is a quintessentially American journey, more American than Route 66 or McDonald’s or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — at which, by the way, apparently our people take a back seat to the Danes, Swedes, Canadians, and lots of other pinko-commies who have supposedly grown fat and lazy sucking on the government’s teat.

Over the years, we have pinched our pennies until the outline of Lincoln’s hat remained etched on our thumbs, and stretched a dollar til it was so thin you could read through it. Despite bouts of unemployment, Mr. Ben’s law school debt, and the fact that we got engaged and then married, we now have enough money for a down payment. What’s the secret, you ask? Well, for one thing, you let your parents pay for the wedding, even if it means they do everything their way and you get about as much say as the flower girl. For another, you re-use everything. Those sweatpants your mom bought you from the Limited when you were ten? Why *not* wear those to gym? So what if you look like Liz Lemon on an off day?

SIDE NOTE: I love it when people compliment Liz Lemon.

“You’re Liz Lemon, damn it. In certain lights, you’re an 8! Using East Coast, over-35 standards, excluding Miami.” –Jack

“There’s something about you lately. Make me want to put my feet in your mouth.” –Tracy

Um, I’m getting off track. The point is, I’ve been looking at apartments since late summer and discovered, as many good people have before me, that in New York, the definition of “amenities” has been broadened to include many things that residents of other places take for granted, such as “light,” “floorboards,” “non-lead paint,” etc. In order to get a whopping three (3) rooms, plus a kitchen and a bathroom, in a Stuff White People Like neighborhood, you need to produce a huge amount of money, the kind of dough that bought a prize racehorse in the Godfather

Poor Khartoum came to a sticky end, as perhaps you recall.

Anyway, we have an accepted offer on our apartment of choice, and it’s all terribly exciting. In honor of this development (and in honor of Filmspotting, which I’ve been listening to regularly now for almost a year), I thought I’d do a Top 5 list of movies about houses, and I’m soliciting suggestions. What are your favorites?

In any such endeavor, rules are crucial:

1) The house must be a character of sorts in the film and not just a backdrop (so, like, the Austen novel Mansfield Park would count, but the Austen novel Emma would not).

2) The hotel in The Shining does not count as a house. Neither does the prison in The Shawshank Redemption. We’re being strict here, people.

3) The action must take place largely in or around the house; the house must be central to the plot and even the identity of the film.

So! Recommendations? Suggestions? Let’s hear ’em.

The ABCs of Places You Could Buy a House If You Didn’t Live in NY

A is for Asheville!

Asheville, North Carolina, is the San Francisco of the South. It is run by hippies and retirees in equal numbers and offers plenty of NYT-sanctioned activities.

Huge Queen Anne Victorian in the historic neighborhood of Montford, a short walk from downtown Asheville. Built in 1900. Almost 4,500 square feet. Sky blue with gingerbread-house-like trim. Fireplace, wraparound porch, and turrets included. 

Property is zoned “RM8,” which presumably means something to somebody.

B is for Bisbee!

Bisbee, Arizona, is the San Francisco of the Southwest. It’s an artsy town in the mountains near the Mexico-America border, so lots of Weeds-like hijinks ensue! At least in my imagination. A guy there makes killer Killer Bee Honey.

Click Image to View SlideshowMmmmmmm … pool. Also four bedrooms to house all the jealous friends from New York who insist on flying out to use your pool.

Outside features include “Rv Hookup, Rv Parking, Sprinkler/drip,” while landscape includes “Fruit Trees, Shrubs, Desert, Grass, Gravel, Trees.” Can’t argue with that diversity! Plus your kids get to go to school in a district called Tombstone.

C is for Copenhagen!

Copenhagen is in Denmark, which is the San Francisco of southern Scandinavia and has abolished poverty and injustice. Well, almost.

I have no idea how easy it is to buy property over there, but apparently a 3-BR townhouse can be had for the equivalent of $350,000 US. Do you know what $350,000 US will buy you in Brooklyn? A garage in Bay Ridge next to an open sewer. (I’m guessing.)

D through F coming soon!

It’s here! It’s here!

Forget the new address and new apartment and waking up on Montague Street for the second day in a row. The most exciting thing about today is that my April horoscope is up! These things are like farmer’s almanacs in their specificity:

Venus has been in your house of fame and honors, but has been in weak retrograde orbit since March 6. Once Venus normalizes on April 17, you can more easily get help from references and high level executives whom you know and who want to help you.

Venus happens to be IN your house of career, but it RULES your house of home – so Venus retrograde has been a distraction because something involving home, property, or family seems to have tugged on you. It’s very possible that you’ve been a bit drained by whatever was taking so much of your attention, and it may have been hard to focus on other things, such as your career.

TRANSLATION: You got an agent but since then nothing has been going your way, *and* domestic matters — i.e., finding an apartment, securing it, packing for it, and moving into it — have kept you harried and distracted. In a couple weeks, things will get better.

And people wonder why I find these things so reassuring.

Publishing and broadcasting industries glow for you now too, especially during the first three weeks, while Mars will brighten this area until April 22. This is a very broadening influence, and certainly you seem to be enjoying it.

One day that could be either very, very good or very, very bad is April 15 when Mars (energy or strife) conjoins Uranus (surprise developments). These two planets will meet in Pisces, a sign good for you. I would say, just don’t take any chances by provoking anyone with a controversial or inflammatory remark. Those born at the end of the sign, near July 20, [ED NOTE: ME] are likely to benefit because both planets will be in the right position to send good news. Let’s hope so!

Yes, let’s. Because I’m tired of stress. I had my first panic attack in several months last night and for no clear reason. The day was spent surrounded by boxes, true, but also with friends, and I managed to apply to a couple exciting-looking jobs.

I guess the anxiety stems from the fact that I am over-identifying with this apartment, having put in so much energy to attain it. And though it has it charming points (it is spacious, classy, well-lit, full of storage, and well-located) it also has its pitfalls (a narrow kitchen full of appliances that date from 1983) and then its just-plain-weird points (a mirror right next to the toilet, in case you were ever interested in getting a close-up side view of your seated ass).

My guess is that an elderly woman lived here for decades, not cooking more than an egg every once in a while on the cramped, tilted range, and stocking lots of dry goods to give away to her children and grandchildren in the pantry. Soon, so I can more easily blame things like the padded toilet seat on her, I will give her a name. Shirley, maybe. It is because of Shirley that the pipes hit a high note after the hot water goes off. The fact that one long wall of the living room curves inwards? Shirley just loved that; it reminded her of her 60s commune days.

We will become accustomed to, or develop workarounds for, everything. I have confidence in our creativity. Still, part of me still misses the old place with our garden, our fridge, our stove, our heat that didn’t hiss, our brand-new laundry machines.

Buck up, Ester! There is sunshine here! There are ceiling fans! I try, I swear. I try, if only because:

A sensational day awaits you: April 22.

I’m just going to push through til then.

Post #1400

Wow. That number is either impressive or depressing; I can’t decide. That’s how I feel about most things these days. Some mornings I wake up in a cold sweat imagining that I’ll have to arrive at my Swarthmore five year reunion with nothing to show for myself but a ring on my finger.

I’ll have stories to tell, God knows, some of which will appear in my upcoming book Never Marry a Short Woman: Narratives by ester, featuring the one where the priest died at the wedding, the one about being left in a coffee shop in Amsterdam at closing time with no money to pay the bill, and the one about how I lost my first job in New York because I was taken to the ER with a kidney infection.

Ha ha ha!, everyone will say. What delightful anecdotes you have, you pointless but amusing little sprite who got married at 25 (isn’t that sweet). Have you heard about my advanced degrees and how I am living in a third-world country making my own tofu and biking around digging wells to provide indigenous people with safe drinking water?

They will present me with a copy of their prize-winning thesis and I will bow my head in submission before retiring to a hidden spot under one of the many labeled trees to read it, weep tears of envy, and shield my inferiority from their eyes.

“You know, you don’t have to go,” my mother pointed out. “The people who attend are a self-selected group of those who have something they want to brag about.” True, O king, but to *not* go out of fear would be the real failure. The coward dies a thousand times before his death; the valiant only ever tastes of death but once, or so said some guy I once met at a bar.

Better to face up to my accomplishments, or lack thereof, with good humor. Also it would be good to stop comparing myself to other people, like my brother, who was sworn into the NY State bar yesterday, and my dearfriend Tamar who “matched” this week into her first-choice for residency, and the myriad other successful folks I feel I am surrounded by. Excelsior, my lovelies! Onwards and upwards! Don’t worry about me; I’ll always have Jesus.

My mother the brigadier general was here for three days to organize our initial packing-and-moving effort into the new place. Paid movers will be coming next weekend but we got a huge amount done in advance with the help of a small volunteer army. Maybe once I’m done being obsessed with boxes’n’bins and bubble wrap and tape I’ll feel better about everything, because stability really does tend to help.

It would also help if some publisher realized that my poor little novel is NOT a satire. If it needs a label, call it a koala, okay? Publish it and put it in the koala section and I will kiss your feet.

And to think that I saw it on Montague Street

I’m pretty broken up about Bristol and Levi but not as broken up as they are. Zing!

Yes, I know I already Twittered that. But I wanted to keep it around for posterity. Speaking of Twitter, I am loving this #fuckitlist thing, wherein people list things they will never do (this is as opposed to composing a “bucket list,” where you make a list of things to do before you die or before you make two hours of inane, waste-of-celluloid-and-talent Christmastime pap).

Choice samples from the Twitterati’s #fuckitlist:

#Fuckitlist – Learn to speak French. I mean, really, what’s the point? A few well mangled words out of a phrase book and they speak English.”

“Upon my death I will have never seen all of the avante guarde films of Andy Warhol nor ever have volunteered for the Rose Parade #fuckitlist”

“#fuckitlist Eat turducken”

“#fuckitlist: learn ballet.”

“#fuckitlist Saving for retirement. I’ll just shoot myself at 45.”

“#fuckitlist getting tickets to Jimmy Fallon”

“#fuckitlist Make a turducken.”

“#fuckitlist: give country music a chance.”

“#fuckitlist pay off all my debt, get arrested in Mexico, oh yeah, join a dance troup or the circus”

“#fuckitlist Read Twilight or Harry Potter, pay for cable, drink beer, eat raw meat, become a sumo wrestler”

“#fuckitlist Getting tickets to The Price is Right”

“Watch The Godfather #fuckitlist”

The hostility cheers me right up somehow. Things are basically better, anyway, as always happens: darkest before dawn, right? I mean, not in Darfur, where it’s darker before the dark continues and it’s like fucking Narnia over there — always winter and never Christmas — but here in America, for us privileged folks.

Darkest before dawn! Only hours after writing that last post about broker-monsters, I met a kind, funny, and helpful guy who found me a large one-bedroom on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights in my price range with high ceilings and laundry in the apartment. Then he convinced the owner to pay the broker’s fee and didn’t ask for any money for either the application or the credit check. Basically he did everything but secure me a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Mr. Ben and I are very grateful and we should be signing the lease in the next day or so.

Take that, broker-monsters!

Still no job, though.


There’s a line between being active and proactive (good) and trying to control things you can’t control (bad) and trying to make things happen just to shift the weight off your goddamn shoulders already (crazy). I’m straddling that line and it feels like a permanent wedgie. Help me, lord.

Actually this is one of those moments I wish I did believe in a higher, guiding, benevolent force in the universe. Then maybe I could lay back and think:

– the fact that I have not yet secured us an April 1 rental, despite spending every day shuttling from one middling apartment to another is all part of the plan

– the fact that, after a month, the bank has still not rubber-stamped our pre-approval so that we could forward with our potential purchase is all part of the plan

– the fact that brokers keep chipping away at my self-esteem and self-confidence is all part of the plan. Viz:

ME: My husband and I …
BROKER: No. No! You’re a BABY!

ME: I’m not sure this is quite right for us.
BROKER 2: Well, what is it you want, anyway? How many apartments have you seen? Shouldn’t you know by now? Shouldn’t you just commit?

ME, DIFFERENT APARTMENT: I’m not sure this is what we’re looking for.
BROKER 2: (Shouts in Hebrew on her cell phone for a long time)

ME: I’d like an application, please.
BROKER 3: Mm, sorry. I really don’t like giving wives applications without their husbands present.

ME: Well, for $2000, we’d like a large one-bedroom in a building with laundry and an elevator.
BROKER 4: You’ll never find it.

– the fact that Mr. Ben doesn’t know what he wants to / will be able to do once he leaves his clerkship in September is all part of the plan

– the fact that I keep applying fruitlessly to the sprinkling of available jobs is all part of the plan

– the fact that my father is sick and spends his days calculating the value of his library is all part of the plan

That would have to be one serious plan, that’s for sure. And it could be. I just wish I had the faith.

so much to do!

My Busy and Important unemployed life demanded that I buy a planner for the first time. So far I have lots of exercise classes written in there, which is a great first step!

I also made an elaborate color-coded Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the 63 (and counting) agents to whom I have sent my proto-classic manuscript. I should make another to keep track of the jobs I have applied to, but that would cross the line into depressing. At least the agents have been encouraging, even the ones who pass. One fellow even asked me to keep in touch and let him know what eventually happened because it was such a close call.

I’ll tell you what’s eventually going to happen: I’m going to get to meet Barack Obama. Yeah, that’s right. Somehow I will get from here — in pajamas in an armchair with my laptop — to a handshake with our heartthrob president and it will be because some agent takes a chance on my book. (Maybe if I write that in my planner for sometime in the future, it will happen. That’s the Secret all over, right?)

Essentially I’m trying to stay active and focused. The big project at the moment is the mortgage, because if we can actually get the pre-approval and make a bid on the apartment we want, that will address one leg of 2009’s Triathlon of Major Problems. These are, in case you’re just joining us, that I

1) got laid off
2) am soon to be homeless
3) heard my Dad has cancer again

Is “problems” too strong a word? Should I say “challenges”? Someone who knows the Secret let me know, please.

1) is the hardest to fix, as I feel like I’m competing with every English/Film/Humanities major in New York City for every open position. But the unemployment checks help and I’m not in danger of insolvency soon.

2) could turn out to be a good example of falling up, if we do manage to get a loan and buy this one guy’s amazing Cobble Hill apartment for appallingly little money (by New York standards). Regardless, though, I’m going to sow the fields with salt before we leave. I can’t believe we planted a garden in our backyard and won’t get to stay here to see it bear fruit come summer.

3) is not as dire as it seemed initially, thank god. I’ve now been to and from Washington twice to see him (well, and to see C.J. Roberts tussle with Obama, wish my grandma a happy 96th birthday, and meet my brother’s new 24-year-old acupuncturist Californian girlfriend). Everyone’s feeling more optimistic now that there is a treatment plan in place for him. This time last year, he was just getting over being chemo’d and radiated; now he gets to do it all over again, after which he gets to be skillfully disemboweled for the second time. Oh, the wonders — and limitations — of modern medicine.

My February horoscope looks good, though!:

The year 2008 seems to have been a little frustrating for you, but planets gathering in your eighth house will hasten your transition into your new life phase. … On the agenda will be the basic questions: What will make me happy? How can I go about creating real, lasting changes – ones I will genuinely want – that will be in place for years to come? Certainly you want stability, so that’s what will be on your list of questions to answer, too.

So true. I’m very open to suggestion, friends.

think different

I’m going to write a book about counter-intuitive things to do when you’re unemployed. Like, join a gym! Mr. Ben and I took this opportunity to join the Brooklyn YMCA because of the pool and the classes and because he told me he’d withhold physical intimacy unless I do something to reduce my stress levels, which are registering at somewhere between Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island and the exposure to which are threatening to turn him into a three-headed dog.

Start an IRA!
I did that the last time I was booted from a job. It has since lost more than half of its value, thanks to the current economy. Still, it makes you feel grown up and responsible to have an IRA, especially a droopy one, since you can join in the chorus of grumbling by real adults about the stock market. Camaraderie is important during these dark times, and to stave off a feeling of isolation while you’re spending most of your days at home wrapped in a blanket talking to your dead orchid about the book deal you’re totally going to get any day now.

Apply for a mortgage! Maintaining your equilibrium is key, as is a feeling of forward motion. (We are all sharks: we move or we die.) Talking to banks about rates and assets helps you feel more in control, as well as active and connected to the outside world. If you actually get pre-approved and can put in an offer on that fantastic Cobble Hill apartment across the street from your new gym, all the better.

Advertise your capabilities on Craigslist! Just because you’ve been laid off doesn’t mean you don’t have skills. You deserve to be paid to help other people do things you yourself have often failed to do, like find a great job and keep it.

Get a fancy haircut. Gotta keep up appearances! This works well when a guy you know offers a two-for-one deal at his hoity-toity studio and you and a friend can each get away with paying only $34 each to look so fabulous no one will notice you’re still vaguely green and pulsing from the radioactive stress.

Post pictures of you and your friends looking happy. This will remind you that you have friends and also that you have, at moments, been happy:

Stasis again

We have moved! And I have a new mantra, or a new blessing, rather: May everything that goes wrong be minor and manageable. We were lucky enough in that respect. A tire went flat only once the car it was attached to had come to rest close to 4th avenue, a street with not one but TWO tire shops in the immediate vicinity, as well as a couple gas stations.

The movers showed up a half an hour early, definitely before we were ready to receive them, but my mother, the brigadier general of Venezuela, preceded them and threw the apartment into shape.

The movers also asked, on the spot, for twice as much as we had agreed on. Luckily that had initially agreed to perform for so little that twice as much — which we bargained down anyway — still felt like a good deal.

Nobody broke anything or even really scratched anything. Nobody was lamed or maimed, although we were shamed a little when my mom saw the filth that accumulates in a fridge that goes uncleaned for years. Nothing we couldn’t survive. In my head I am still the teenager who would recycle clothes rather than go to the bother of doing laundry, so I feel proud of myself that I voluntarily do dishes as soon as I’m done with them, even if scrubbing fridge shelves with regularity remains beyond me.

The new apartment feels somewhat magical. Doors! Who knows where those could lead? Doors are a slippery slope. For now we leave them all open. The first morning I ventured OUT of the bedroom to eat my cereal; and Mr. Ben followed me, knotting his tie while standing behind me. When I looked around and smiled at him, he replied sheepishly, “It’s weird being farther away from you than this. I’m not used to it.”

I haven’t yet asked the washer/dryer to dance. It makes me shy. But the new stove works! And the backyard works! It sits there and looks pretty, just like it is supposed to. You know what also works? The free cable and the free wireless internet. Though both, I accept in advance, are probably temporary, for now I thumb my nose in the direction of Time Warner. Who needs you, Mr. Man? I got rhythm, I got music, I got our WEDDING VIDEO in three versions — tall, venti, and super-sized — and who could ask for anything more?