What Was I Thinking
One of my favorite visual artists and spiritual gurus is Brian Andreas (www.storypeople.com). His quirky, colorful sketches, sculptures, and pithy life quips have made me laugh since I first encountered them in a toy store in Denver about 25 years ago. He dresses the dim and heavy aspects of being human in watercolored jester costumes that scatter glitter as they dance. Every so often one of his “stories” nails me in passing, oftentimes with glitter, and occasionally with iron spikes. A current favorite is Almost New Age, which reads, “Is willing to accept the fact that she creates her own reality except for some of the parts where she can't help but wonder what the hell she was thinking.” … As my kids say, hahaha. Spiked.
This essay's been difficult to write partly because my overly optimistic nature resists remembering the dismal aspects of this (or any) odyssey, but the armchair neuroscientist in me knows it's necessary if I want to avoid creating that same reality again and again and again. I am ever grateful to Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley for their book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, a fascinating look at identifiable emotional styles, and how mindfulness practices can help us change behaviors that aren't working for us. A couple of years ago I learned (among other things) that overly optimistic people tend to be unable to delay gratification, may have difficulty learning from their mistakes, are more inclined to risk taking behaviors, and neglect threats.”(p.227) … Yikes. Nailed again.
One of their prescriptions “for damping down your positive outlook is to fill your home and workspace with reminders of threats to your well being such as descriptions of natural disasters, environmental and economic threats,” or in my case perhaps bank balances and credit card statements. Although I can't bring myself to decorate my tiny house with gloom, remembering some of the negative stuff that has happened in the recent past will hopefully help me avoid making the same mistakes in the future. In addition, it might give the people who know me and think I'm so sweet and mellow, a look at the Darth Annie that my husbands and children and dogs have always known. (Cue Vader breath.)
So where to begin recounting the disasters of the last month, year, two years? As I said before, I had initially planned to live in the tiny house in my great aunt's yard outside San Diego. I decided this in late October of 2014. In November I found a fantastic tiny house builder online (Jeff Loper at www.vallyviewtinyhouses.com) and asked if they could build the house as fast as possible, hoping I'd get out to California by the end of February or early March at the latest. I bought a used Ford F350 to tow the tiny house, took out a $10K personal loan to do necessary repairs to get my big house ready to sell, and quite my job so I could be available to take the dogs away for any and all house showings. I was counting on the house selling fast so I could get all the loans repaid and get out to California and start working again.
Talk about overly optimistic. Not only did the house fail to sell, I also ended up being out of work for most of 2015 and 2016. When I wasn't painting the interior of the house (over and over because I was too stubborn to just do the whole damn thing beige from the start) I spent hours on Craigslist and Indeed.com filling out profiles and applications for jobs I was more than qualified for, but from which I rarely got any response. Thanks to my father and stepmother's endless generosity, I didn't have a mortgage, but for a year and half my my monthly bills were about $1K, and I had little or no income. When I filed my taxes for 2015, (net income about $3500,) my accountant's father asked how on earth I had been surviving. I am both embarrassed and utterly grateful to admit it was completely due to the generosity of friends and family.
I borrowed money from my mother and my ex-husbands (thank you ALL for all the loans). I did odd jobs for friends – house cleaning, gardening, painting, sewing (thank you ALL for giving me work.) I talked the friend of a friend into hiring me part-time to install low wattage outdoor landscape lighting, and spent the winter outside digging trenches, running cables and hooking up pinch clamps. (Thank you Steven for not firing me when I almost electrocuted myself the one day we were inside and you let me install that dimmer switch.) I was 53 years old, with an Ivy League undergrad degree and most of a Master's in Secondary Education, working in my parka and the same pair of jeans, getting filthy dirty and going to the bathroom outdoors. At one point near Christmas, my realtors brought me bags of food and a bottle of wine because they heard me say I was eating popcorn for dinner. Hardly the pinnacle of midlife success.
I won't go too deeply into all the disasters and challenges of getting my house sold and being mostly out of work, but here's a short list of things I learned;
- Don't quite your day job before you can replace the income.
- Paint your entire house beige (inside and outside) BEFORE listing.
- Don't assume buyers have ANY decorating sense, or want to do their own “updates”
- Don't try and remove wallpaper. Just paint over it.
- If you have a bad feeling about a contractor, DON'T let them start a job, regardless of how highly recommended they come. Find someone you feel good about.
- Don't get rid of so much furniture that the house feels empty and you have to borrow some back
- Don't assume that because you have a sales contract (or three) and have already had home inspections done and know there's nothing structurally wrong with the house, that buyers won't change their mind. (And no, you don't get to keep their “earnest money,” even though legally you should.)
- When you finally get a contract job, don't assume they are going to pay you when the contract says they will
And last but obviously not least,
-When taking your dogs away during a house showing, make sure they poop BEFORE you put them in your truck.
As for “downsizing,” it's such a popular subject right now I won't dwell on it. I will say that although I did most of it in 5 months before I first listed the house, I was still getting rid of things a year and a half later. It was a monumental task and I vividly remember the day I first stood in my daughter's bedroom doorway looking at the room she had moved out of 8 years before, with all her horse show ribbons hanging around the ceiling border, the walls plastered with posters, and every inch of available horizontal space covered with mementos. I wanted to cry, and just stood there blankly, thinking “How on earth am I going to do all this by myself?!”
The answer was slowly, in pieces, and with a lot of help from Netflix. I remembered Kelly McGonigal's book Willpower, and her encouragement that when faced with something overwhelming, start with “trying five.” Five breaths, five minutes … and for me, every so often, 5 episodes of some BBC miniseries. (I recommend Foyles War, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, and Detectorists.) Seriously though, start with a single drawer, a single shelf, maybe a closet, some easily doable amount that you can accomplish fairly quickly, which makes you feel successful (which gives your body/brain a dopamine boost) and usually leads to accomplishing more without even thinking about it. (Spoiler alert, more than 5 episodes of anything though, is notably de-motivating, but that's another essay.)
I had lived in the big house for nearly 12 years, longer than I'd ever lived anywhere in my life, through two different marriages and two different family configurations. When I said in the first essay that I don't really remember how I packed it all up, I wasn't kidding. I know the grand piano was the first thing to go, to some wonderful friends who offered to take care of it for as long as I want. After that I vaguely remember starting upstairs and working my way down. I piled things in the front hall and living room, and little by little friends and family came and took pick up truck and van loads of toys and furniture and treasures. I took endless truckloads of stuff to donation sites and the dump, and still at the end had to get a small storage unit.
The whole process was an utter nightmare of an endurance test. I changed realtors once, took the house off the market and did some repainting, put it back on and kept lowering the selling price until finally in February or March of 2016 after I had two different buyers walk away from an offer that was $100K lower than what the house was worth, I got really angry and took it off the market again. I decided to break down and paint the whole thing beige, including the deck, and to “update” the master bath. I borrowed money from my father, had two friends help with the bathroom demo, and then although I did hire out the tile work (the first time to a DISASTER of a contractor, see note above regarding trusting your instincts) I did as much of the finish work as I could myself with the help of DIY websites and my oldest friend Jimbob.
In retrospect I can say a few redeeming things about the sales process taking so long. First of all, being financially strapped forced me to develop new skills and confidence, and also taught me how to ask for help. Secondly, by the time the house finally sold, it didn't look or feel like “my” house anymore, and I was more than ready to let it go. In addition, my son, who was in his second year of college and kind of wistful about moving, got to say good bye to the house at least three times, and also had the questionable pleasure of helping me in the final stretch, keeping the yard mowed, and packing and moving things into storage right before closing. As we shut the door on the alarmingly stuffed 5x10 unit, I remember saying something like, “Well, if I get hit by a bus, at least you and your sister won't have to clean out the big house.” He responded that after this ordeal he will never accumulate ANY possessions, that now just going into people's houses who have a lot of stuff makes him feel anxious, and that if anything happens to me, he is going to take the boxes of photographs out of the storage unit, and torch the rest. So much for sentimentality.
I did finally get an offer on the house, and though I was elated, in light of the past 4 failed contracts, I was also learning to be skeptical. But the deal finally went through. Wahoo! I thought all my problems were solved, that money was on the way, and everything would be easier. It wasn't. I signed my closing papers the day before the buyers did and had hoped to get out of town that afternoon. I didn't, partially because I still didn't have a license plate for the trailer due to title problems. The day of the buyers closing we had to be out of the house by 3, and even though I still didn't have a tag for the trailer, at 2:45 my son and I got the dogs in the truck (making sure Charlie had already pooped,) hooked up the tiny house, and headed for Virginia to attend a baby shower for my pregnant daughter and her husband.
It was going to be about 1200 miles round trip, and I hoped would be something like a nautical sea trial for the tiny house. At that point I hadn't towed the house enough to feel comfortable, had not yet spent a night in it, had never plugged it in, had no idea how the composting toilet worked, or the lights, the shower, etc. It sounds stupid in retrospect but when I had had the time to do those things, I didn't have the money. No money for camping fees or gas to tow the tiny house somewhere I could plug it in, and I couldn't plug it at my house because I couldn't get it down the hill of my driveway, and didn't have the money for a cord and 50 amp plug or adapter to run out to the street. And I don't know what it is with me and money (that's probably merits an essay, too, or possibly therapy) but even after closing it took me over a week, and many phone calls to finally get the funds from the house sale. More endurance lessons..
The Virginia baby shower and family gatherings were well worth the trip, but towing the tiny house 1200 miles was largely a waste of time and gas, as well as being extraordinarily uncomfortable. There was no place to plug in where we were staying, not even an extension cord, so we not only had no air conditioning we couldn't even have a box fan. The dogs and I couldn't stay in the house and we couldn't see if/how anything worked. (It turns out lots of things didn't work, and that's another essay, too.) And if the heat and unaccommodating housing weren't bad enough, the dogs were not responding well to being taken away from their home. My 16 year old Jack Russell was growing increasingly incontinent, and Charlie was balking at going to the bathroom on a leash. Actually, she was mostly refusing to go to the bathroom outside at all. I walked them six times a day, and at all hours during the night, and still had to clean up messes daily. I wanted to shoot something, mostly Charlie. Even more though, I wanted to go home, and realized I literally didn't have a home to go to.
Over the next ten days I learned more excruciatingly invaluable lessons, most of them while trying not to shoot Charlie, and remembering to breathe like Darth Vader. (Lengthening your exhales helps you calm down, strengthens the relaxation response and tones your Vagus nerve. Score one for the Dark Side.) Some things I learned:
Personally check to make sure dogs are allowed wherever you plan to stay.
Do not spend the night in a motel parking lot, regardless of how large they seem, or how far away from the building you park. Drunken strangers at open windows at midnight are unsettling. (Thank you Charlie for barking. Lucky for me I didn't shoot you.)
Do not trust the online ratings (or photographs) for RV parks and campgrounds.
96 degrees Fahrenheit is too damn hot for people or dogs to be without fans and/or AC
Trying to drag a resistant 60 pound dog behind a couch to rub their nose in poop (again) can result in broken toes. (After which relaxation breathing doesn't much help.)
Probably most importantly though, I learned within the first hour of leaving Chattanooga, (we had only gone 4.5 miles and had to stop for Charlie ...) that I did NOT want to make a habit out of traveling in my tiny house. There are several couples who use their tiny houses as campers, and write glowingly inspiring blogs about their travels. Some of them even have dogs. I had briefly toyed with the idea of writing my own version of Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie. Hahaha. Now I knew better. Even if I was 30 years younger, and didn't have one dog who needs to be sedated and stop every hour and a half, and another who falls down and gets stuck half on and half off the floor, I would not be traveling with my dogs or my tiny house. At least not without seriously readjusting my notion of “travel.” All my life, I've enjoyed driving, and an 11-13 hour car trip has been no big deal. Not any more. When I'm towing the tiny house I shouldn't go more than 50-55 mph, so trips take about 1/3 more time than they used to, and that time is spent drafting 18-wheelers, and stopping every hour and a half to get gas, hoping you clear the overhead hazards and that the dogs go to the bathroom. Roadtrips, which used to be relaxing “get aways,” are now as serious a Zen lesson as the rest of my life has become, and I'm dreading the upcoming one to Florida, especially because I'll be by myself with the dogs for the first time. To finish hacking up this hairball, the past couple years for me have largely been one big lesson in “That which doesn't kill us … nearly does.” Or in my case, very well might if I don't start learning my lessons.”
So, I just searched www.storypeople.com to see if my guru has anything glittery to say about lessons and learning and found this:
Secret #4: You learn how to do life by doing it. You learn more slowly if you think you can skip this part.