Houses & Henry

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All of my life I grew up in apartments. Thirty five years ago I moved to a small town way up north in Michigan: Traverse City. At times I feel I was raised on Mars and doomed to spend my adult life on a planet called Earth.

The litany of differences is too long to catalogue completely. They range from the most minute: don't forget, every night, to turn down the heat, because superintendents don't regulate the heat, to the most major: what kind of holes do you punch in this wooden box to give you more light?

That is the way I treated my house. My house had small windows that let in too little light. I got a bargain on three "BIG" windows that were sitting in someone's yard: he helped tear down an office building. Okay. It's a bargain and they are big. Put one in the front room of the house, put one in the room at the top of the stairs, and put one in the back partially finished room (someday, a breakfast nook?).

I was nuts. With casing (is that the right word?) the six foot wide, six foot high window is a floor to ceiling window in the room upstairs and that's my bedroom, but only in the summer. It's freezing cold up there in the winter. After all, I had them punch a big hole in the wall, and I filled that wall with badly sealed glass, around which, air pours in.

I was raised on another planet. On that other planet, no one ever thought of creating bigger windows. In an apartment building? Are you crazy?

Punching holes did let a lot of light in; now I had to figure out a way to keep all that light out. I didn't think of people looking in. All of my life I've lived above the third floor. Shades? Blinds? Curtains? Possible kinds of curtains? It would take a sixty page book to detail my many crazy choices trying to keep people from looking in, trying to create light inside my house.

I do not know how to light a room, nor do I know where to place furniture. For many years, when I was sole parent to two rug rats, I owned twenty bean bags: enormously pliable furniture, easy to move and fun to throw.

Currently my house is a cacophony of furniture, a hodge podge of Salvation Army chests of drawers, office desk chairs, couches from classified ads. Rugs? Color of walls? Coat hooks? Place for muddy boots? Plants anyone?

I used to move furniture, and plants, so often, that sometimes the entire decor of several rooms changed three times in one night and no one but me got to see changes one and two. My children, who were with me then, woke up to arrangements they did not always approve of. After all, kids like a predictable universe, a universe where chairs and couches and plants aren't on the move.

I had never made my own bed (except in the Army), so I did not make my children’s beds. I did not know how to cook a balanced meal, and it was only after a year of eating out, and two years of babysitters who cooked for the kids, that I even attempted to cook meals. One child accused me of considering a huge hunk of meat a "balanced meal."

I grew up on a Jewish planet. On this planet, boys study, girls prepare to be wives. When, at twenty four, I went to graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana, I did not know how to scramble an egg.

It never dawned on my mother to show me how she cooked an egg. I sat at the table, like a good Jewish boy, and she scrambled eggs. I sometimes saw eggs being scrambled, but I never paid attention to how the gooey mess turned into beautifully scrambled eggs. The only time I participated was when my mother asked: "Are they good? Do you want them runnier or harder?" How she made them runnier or harder was a mystery to me.

Had I but world enough and time, I'd tell you all the funny tales. At one point bees, birds, mice and some other large rodent lived inside my house. Exterminators took care of the bees; the birds left me alone, I left them alone. I learned about live traps and disposed, humanely, of the mice. But something was still trying to burrow through the ceiling of the back room.

Envision a small piece of wood eighteen inches by ten inches - nailed firmly into a section of the sloping side roof of the back room. It looks bizarre because it is studded full of unevenly spaced nails. It is a testament to temporary insanity. I was determined to make sure that whatever was trying to burrow through, would never get through. I found a hammer, a bunch of nails, and I started whacking the nails into the piece of wood. I sealed that one spot Shut. Nothing was gonna get through there.

Perhaps the height of my folly, a folly that comes from a vast pool of ignorance, occurred when I took over, for a year, a house in England. The house was heated by coal, a substance I read about in economics class, but not a substance I actually ever saw, or touched. But to heat the house, I had to heap coal into a Rayburn Rhapsody Heater which, unbeknownst to me, happened to heat a hot water tank which was built into the wall behind it.

Certain crucial instructions were missing among them a warning that a draft control knob did not work unless such and such a door was replaced and six hours of diligent effort yielded only a smoldering mound. In a final the heck with it I'm going to bed act, I heaped coal on the fire to smother the fire.

A good friend of mine said to me that such an admission should not be made to anyone except on one's deathbed.

I had never dealt with coal. I had never ever attempted to build a fire. What do you think I am, a pyromaniac? People who live in cities don’t build fires. Once, at the age of five, I tried to strike a match. I burned my finger. That was the last time I dealt with matches, or fire.

No, the house did not burn down, but I did wake up to a living room under two inches of water. The hot water heater burst, flooded the living room. Fortunately, it was all covered by his insurance.

I’ve always loved a cartoon I saw long ago. A doctor is looking at an allergy chart. He says to the patient: ''According to your allergy chart, you were scheduled for another planet." According to my upbringing, I was definitely scheduled for another planet.

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