1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Three: Home
Posted on September 3, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 36 Comments
In the last twenty years I’ve called two places “home”: The first house I ever owned, and (I suspect) the last house I’ll ever own.
The first house I ever owned — and by “I” it should be understood that I am a part of a “we” as Krissy and I were both on the mortgage — was in Sterling, Virginia. It was a two-story with a full basement in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac, with a mere patch of a yard that in the back opened up onto common land that was otherwise inaccessible to anyone else, so it was like getting three times the back yard for free. Sterling at the time was undergoing an upswing in terms of new businesses and restaurants coming into the area, and was close by a number of other well-heeled Northern Virginia towns, and a large number of friends (most gathered because they had worked at America Online, as I had, which was then headquartered a couple of miles from my house) were around and available for hanging out, and group dinners, and all other manner of fun and shenanigans. For me, it was perfect, and a place I could see living at for many years, and making a real home there.
So naturally we moved in 2001.
We moved because Athena was born in 1998 and Krissy wanted her to know her family, who by this time had all moved to Ohio, the ancestral home of Krissy’s father, and in fact where Krissy had been born and lived her first few years before moving to California, which is where I had met her. I was not keen on living in Ohio and tried to be clever by saying I wanted a substantial chunk of land, which I figured we could not afford; Krissy found a big house on a lot of land in a price range we could easily manage, in a rural town called Bradford, which had just 1,800 people in it. We moved in February of 2001, when snow was still on the ground, and kept the house in Virginia just in case we decided we hated living in rural Ohio and need to escape back to suburban DC. A few years later we sold the Virginia house. We knew we weren’t going back.
I noted several times before on this site that living where we do isn’t an intuitive fit for me, like living in Northern Virginia was. Prior to 2001, I grew up and lived in urban or suburban areas, all of which were reasonably multicultural, diverse, and passably liberal, all of which suited me. Bradford and Darke County, of which it is a part, is rural, overwhelmingly white (like, 98.5%) and is part of a congressional district that’s been conservative Republican since the 1930s. I’m fond of saying a traffic jam in Bradford is three cars behind an Amish buggy, which is definitely not my experience having dealt with traffic in LA, Chicago or in the DC area, three other places I’ve lived. And we have to travel an hour for Thai or Indian food, which frankly is appalling.
It’s not intuitive but it’s turned out well, despite my personal “fish out of water” status, for a number of reasons. One, people here generally good neighbors, as we try to be; that counts of a lot on both sides of the equation. Two, the Internet meant that I was never isolated either from friends or from work — nor was it a substitute for human contact since by that time most of my friends I kept in contact with online, and nearly all of my work was done through email and conference calls. It was the way I already did things. Three, I travel a lot, which means both that I get to see friends and other interesting folks when I do, and that when I come home, I don’t actually want to see a whole lot of people, which rural Ohio is frankly perfect for.
It’s also the case that I’ve simply come to love my home. It’s the place where my daughter grew up; nearly all of our memories as a family are here. All of my novels from Old Man’s War forward have been written here, in my office. I can see the Milky Way when I look up at night. Krissy is the architect of the feel of our house and has over the course of seventeen years made it into the place that is uniquely us. We enjoy our place and our community. I’ve become very fond of the landscape; rural Ohio is not breathtaking in the way, say, the Rockies are, or the Pacific ocean can be, but driving down the road, the gently undulating hills of are like green waves, and as you rise and fall with them it feels like the earth is breathing. It’s mesmerizing and comforting and it makes me happy. Oh, and we have pretty good sunsets.
Athena is now off to college and one of the things Krissy and I had a talk about is whether we’ll want to move. Much of Krissy’s family — the reason we moved out here in the first place — has dispersed again, to California and other states, so effectively and ironically we’re the ones holding down the fort in Ohio. And we’re fortunate that if we wanted to we could afford to move to wherever we would like in the US. And as I travel the country I see a lot of places I think I could be happy being, if it came to that.
But I think we’re planning to stay. Part of this decision is just practical: It’s a big, nice house and it’s already paid off, and moving is a real pain in the ass in any event. But more to the point, this is our home. We’ve put work and time and love into it, and we like living here. We like to travel so we’ll do that, and visit places and people and do cultural things. But then we’ll come home, because it’s nice to be home, too. I could be wrong about this, but as it stands now, this is the last house we’ll own, and the last home we’ll have. That’s not a bad thing.
In short, home now is where home has been for most of these last twenty years is where I think home will be moving forward. All I really need from my current location is better Internet. But I suppose there has to be some penalty for making one’s home in rural America. As penalties go, it could be a lot worse.
We have a place in a rural-ish area that we hope to retire to; meanwhile we spend a lot of weekends here (and are beginning to be able to work from home occasionally here). The one thing that will factor in how long into retirement we can stay here is likely to be the accessibility of medical care as we get older – the hospitals and good doctors are 30 min or so away in the nearest city, which isn’t terrible but may be too much when we’re in our 80s.
The only thing I’d want to say about this is that at some point in your life, there’s a very good chance that either you or Krissy will want to live somewhere that’s adapted for accessibility. But the same thing that will make you want that will also make moving house much harder. You’re not even 50, so you have some time to think about this, and to pick somewhere completely suitable (or spend money adapting the place you already live in, or put some aside to do adaptations suitable to whichever particular needs you will have).
My parents were looking for somewhere that would be more accessible than the house I grew up in, a few years after they retired. They stopped looking when my mother had her stroke, because, although that was when they’d have really benefitted from moving, it also made moving so much more effort, and they’ve adapted the house as much as they can instead of moving.
I’m enjoying these retro-reflective posts so far. I like the grow-when-you’re-planted feel of this one. I hope this home keeps working for you.
Sounds nice! I live midway between Springfield and Worcester in central Mass. and while it is -relatively- rural, I’m still ten minutes from the nearest Walmart and another grocery store. On the ‘dining out’ side I’m within close range of a hundred or more restaurants from Thai to BBQ to most any type of cuisine. But the internet service sucks here too…
As mentioned, health care and accessibilty get more important with age. Mass. politics is a bit too liberal for my taste sometimes but health care here is first class.
Have you ever considered a second home in your favorite major city? I know you like to live frugally, but if you ever hit hard times, you could likely sell the hypothetical condo for a decent profit.
We decided to travel rather than pay for and keep a second home. We already did the landlord thing with the house in Virginia before we sold it. It wasn’t something we really enjoyed.
Makes sense. I’m the involuntary half owner of a house in the country (long story) and it can be a pain in the neck.
Your post reminds me of a saying I heard a lot when I was growing up – “Bloom where you’re planted.” It sounds like you’ve done a fine job of that, and it also sounds as though you crave the stability and groundedness of being in the same place over time (which describes me, too). My spouse and I bought our first house in 1987 in the community where our aging parents were living at the time, stayed there caring for them until they had died, relocated to a community of our choosing in 1999 and bought our second house here, where we still live and expect to remain the rest of our lives.
I do strongly echo/endorse the comments about accessibility in the years to come, because when you get right down to it, the best that any of us can say is that we are temporarily able-bodied. My spouse and I are in our sixties, and we are already seeing the impact that aging bodies have on the livability of a home. We’ve begun retrofitting our little 1940s bungalow to make it more accessible to our creaky selves, and the changes have made a huge difference to both of us. Realistically speaking, I don’t know that we’ll be able to avoid the assisted-living route in another couple of decades, but we want to put that off as long as possible, which means making our current home as accessible as we can.
My family lives in the Maryland counterpart to Sterling. We’re the same radius from central D.C., but on the other side of the Potomac. When we first moved here 26 years ago, it was a quaint, cozy little town comfortably outside the D.C. suburban sprawl. In that 26 years, the sprawl has spread like a strip-mall-and-housing-tract cancer…overtaking our quaint little town and filling in every open landscape with “crudscape”…and continued spreading beyond. Now, whenever trying to drive anywhere, I feel held hostage by a malignant grid of traffic lights, sucking my life away in two-minute increments. We still love our little house of 26 years, and our son has never known any other home, but I’m retired and ready to escape to our own “Bradford”-type town (except in a warmer clime!)…just waiting on the wife to retire too.
We lived in our most recent house for 32 years, in a “leafy” part of upper Northwest DC. But the house was a two-story, 35 steps up from the street, with a steep driveway in the back that was impossible to use in snowy weather, or even with wet leaves or acorns on it. These drawbacks were not obvious when I was 45 and Marcia 53. Now that I’m 78 and she’s 86, they became insurmountable. If we had lived in a ranch-style at street level, we’d still probably be there, but… .
Last December we moved to a retirement community in Falls Church, just across the border from Arlington. Our two-bedroom-and-den apartment is on the second floor, served by three elevators. Parking is underground, right by the elevators. We don’t have to shovel or mow. I can get a haircut on-site.
There’s only one available option to getting old, and it’s not a good one. If you don’t elect it, only luck can spare you the consequences of ageing. Having to move may well be one of them.
Some folks grow where they’re planeted. Others get uprooted and never really set down roots again.
When I was 13, we moved from the house I’d known all my life to a new house in a better neighborhood … with no one my age. My folks didn’t like the house that much so, when I was 17, we moved again, still with no one my age but now with elderly neighbors my parents volun-told me to do unpaid chores for. I was there for a year, then went away to college. Since college, I have lived in three cities and 9 apartments over 30 years. Not a lot by some standards but it means I haven’t felt “at home” since I was 13. I figure another year in this place and then I’ll look to change cities again.
Just a tumbleweed, tumblin’ along.
And a lovely sunset it is also. Personally I figure it would be a really boring world if everyone wanted to live in the same place or the same sort of housing.
I guess the only thing for me is, as a frequent traveller, how close is the airport you fly out of and how easy to get to? I wouldn’t want to live more than an hour max.
People mentioned accessibility; I personally also made the choice that I wanted a walkable place as I aged, because I don’t want to be one of those elderly people who are totally dependent on their car, to the point they keep it years after they shouldn’t and end up plowing through a crowd because they confuse the gas and break, but again that’s me.
For 20+ years we have lived in the suburbs, near the train line which used to take me to work in NYC. Now we take the train for pleasure into the city and are close enough to easily drive to Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, and less easily Boston. The house will be paid off and the children out of college in about 5 years. Although there are many reasons we’d like to stay, the cost of auto insurance and property taxes will send us right over the border to PA. I look forward to bumping into Chuck Wendig at the apple stands.
I’m also really enjoying these retrospectives as well. (Especially the one about the cats.)
We’re about 30-40 minutes from the airport.
You made the right choice. I have to drive through Northern Virginia a few times a year for my Star Wars Club Meetings (we are the DC metro area club so we bounce between Maryland and Virginia for meetings…) ANYWAY traffic there is a nightmare all the time, every day, any time of year. I mean, I know it was bad when my folks moved to Maryland in ’89, so it has only gotten worse.
Plus, being back to live somewhere and having the means to travel, that is the life. I ponder the idea of moving, but what I love about living in Maryland is that I can get to so much in a few hours of driving. Even Ohio (which we drive through to get to Wisconsin to visit my husband’s family). I was raised on road trips though, being a Navy brat, so a few hours in the car is something I don’t mind one bit. It’s an adventure!
Plus, where could you ever move that would have enough space for all your kitties??? Could you bear to leave them behind??
It’s taken me 12 of the 13 years we’ve been in metro Atlanta to really feel at home here, and I still think about retiring somewhere else. Meanwhile my husband is talking about putting grab bars in the bathroom, “for later on.” He’s apparently already made his decision! And it’s true there is a lot to be said about not starting over again in a different place, when things are good where you are.
You worked for AOL? I never knew that. Was it in the days that they had their very own OS? I remember early on joining and then quitting in a few weeks because it was possibly the only application ever to run under GeOS and you had to reboot your computer every time you wanted to get online.
You’re lucky to not have to move. I’ve moved way too may times and lost way too many things in my life. We’ve been living in a lovely late Victorian neighborhood for a little over 10 years now, but the day when property taxes force us to move is now visible.
As someone who lives in Cincinnati and has been to your neck of the woods plenty of times, I can attest to how comforting the landscape here becomes.
Another thing about southern Ohio, and the midwest in general, is just how easy daily living is. I often visit big cities and think for a second how fun it would be to live there. Then I come to my senses and realize that actually living in NYC, or San Francisco, or Paris would be a nightmare – an expensive nightmare.
And finally, it really is true – people here really are nicer than on the coasts.
As a person who has lived in Brooklyn for 60 years now, the idea of living where you do is not for me. But that’s OK! To each his own, right? We are now what my wife swore 20 years ago that we’d never be, snowbirds, and you know what? It’s perfect for us. Nine months in New York – Broadway, off-Broadway, concerts, and three months out of the winter in South Florida.
Moving is one of life’s Great Traumatic Experiences, even when you’re undertaking it voluntarily. If you put some context around it, that makes sense. So much of the daily unthinking action of who we are and what we do to take care of ourselves is shaped by the place wherein we live. It’s not a big deal to change any one thing (storing the toothbrush in a closed cabinet rather than on the counter by the sink because you have a TOTAL JUNKIE CAT that will steal it for the minty smell, for example) but when you multiply that adjustment by “everything you do during the day in your home environment”, it really adds up.
And then, of course, there’s the Stuff Question. When you settle into a place, it’s very difficult not to accumulate, even if you’re consciously trying not to. You have the space, so why not put a nice box in the office closet and store all those Amazing Works of Art your offspring produced? Some day, perhaps, you’ll get around to sitting down with that box and selecting a dozen or so to make a wall collage from, or put into a scrapbook or album or whatever, and WARNING: For 99.9% of us, that day never comes. Until Moving Day, when we’re by far and away too stressed to enjoy the winnowing process.
Nevertheless, as others in this thread have noted, Time marches on, and it’s not always kind to our ability to maintain the life we and our home have jointly constructed. Mobility and accessibility are only the tip of the iceberg. Maintenance on the home itself and the property can become a burden even with ample financial means, especially in rural areas where the number of eager-beaver landscape maintenance and home repair businesses is limited.
As someone else noted, there’s the question of whether you’ll continue to be a good and safe driver, spring and summer, fall and most of all WINTER, when your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, your reaction time has deteriorated, and your reflexes are a shadow of what they were. And the issue of isolation should one member of the partnership have serious health issues that require ongoing care and regular trips for treatment, and or home medical care. Most rural communities, with the best will in the world to be good neighbors to one another, are not set up to support aging-in-place: Rural culture used to do that by multi-generational families living in close proximity; it’s no longer thus.
Which brings up: Where will Athena settle some day? Might she ever be a source of grandchildren you’ll want to experience grandparenting? This will play out over a longish time, perhaps, but it’s something to think about.
All this is to say, don’t rule out the notion of establishing a second home chosen with aging comfortably in place in mind, and perhaps making a slow transition. You have the resources to explore plenty of possibilities.
Eventually you may hit the point where it’s not just a matter of accessability, but it’s also a matter of physical ability to maintain a large house and grounds. My wife and I are facing that now, and are having to radically downsize before moving to a small in-town house or apartment/condo. Hopefully you won’t have to face that for many years, if ever.
For my part, in my four story condominium apartment block I was careful to get in on the ground floor. We have only one elevator, and I don’t want to be dependent. I had no idea that so many others thought about accessibility too.
I suppose society doesn’t talk about it because there is so little to be done. So many, many bungalows have steps in their sidewalk from the curb. A fellow above put in grab bars “for later.” Me, I would consider putting in a wheel/walker ramp now. I think the best ramps have a steel grill so the snow falls right through.
My parking lot is slightly uphill. Ice. I may have to buy a new place, or snowbird—or else buy an all-terrain walker.
Codex 99: I’ve got to tell you, I really dislike generalizations like “people are nicer here than on the coasts.”
Jeff M: that’s fair – I’ll retract that sentence and simply say “people are very nice here” w/o a comparison to anywhere else.
I’m a native Hoosier, and in point of fact my grandkids are 7th generation Munsonians (Muncie, Indiana), which is about one hour due west of your house. It’s not a small town like Bradford, but you know you live in the midwest when you drive past cornfields and soybean fields everywhere you go.
Do you have any concerns about everyone knowing where you live? Or are you cool with fans doing drive-bys of the Famous Scalzi Compound (so long as they just *drive* *by* and not try to stop in for coffee)? Asking for a friend.
(Being a movie critic, I’ll bet you get a kick out of Close Encounters now, what with that whole “mountain road overlooking Indiana” scene and the “crashing through toll booths” scene.)
Pertinent musical selection?
I was born in Darke County, started school in Miami County (just east of Bradford), and then graduated from high school in Darke County (Greenville). I also went to college in the Chicago area before (because of the army and schooling) living in the South and then in some cool places on the coasts (Monterey and Portland in the west, Capitol Hill in DC in the east) before ending in Columbus Ohio for school and then work. I would have loved to have ended up back in Darke County. I like much of the landscape and the lifestyle, and many of the values.
In this piece I especially liked the description of the rolling landscape. I find most of the routes into the county to have hills and streams, lots of trees, and lovely farms and fields. Both the sights and the smells of planting and harvest, of pastures and fields of corn, bring refreshment and restoration. Five acres there would be a delight.
My big challenge comes from my wife (and her family, to a lesser degree), who also have rural roots, but in the portions of the east Tennessee and Kentucky where the hills go higher and the valleys lower. They sniff at Darke County as “flat.” Those are nice places. I enjoy the visits there. But I’ll take Darke County.
I read out loud to my wife the paragraph on the merits and beauty of life outside Bradford. I sent a link for the posting to another Greenville-loving friend in the Crenshaw neighborhood of LA. Thanks.
I live in RI and cannot imagine living anywhere else. I have moved several times in my life but always within the state. I now live in the town of Bristol (20 yrs) and absolutely love it. I am about 2 blocks from the harbor and it’s nice to just go sit by the water and watch the sailboats. I could not live where you do because it is too far from the ocean and I think I have saltwater in my veins. The nice part of living in RI is at most you are about 45 min to an hr away from the water and that is if you live in the northern part of the state. My town is very walkable and I live in the center of town. The only bad part is the winters. The older I get the less I like it. Most of my immediate family lives in RI or in nearby MA so this is where I will spend the rest of my life. Everything I want or need is here.
The accessibility thing hits hard when it hits. My one regret about the house where I live is that we did not make it possible to live on one level back when serious renovations would not have been disruptive. Our choices now are bad. Renovate and retrofit and hope it’s enough. Or move. Either one has to happen when my daily allocation of steps I can take is less than 200, in a house with stairs, no way to access a shower or bath from a level entry, and no toilet on the same level as the kitchen.
When we picked this house in our 30s and started putting down roots, it never occurred to us that these things would matter so much, nor did we realize that they’d have been much easier to deal with before they started to matter so much.
We bought our house in northern Baltimore County MD 20 years ago as well. A while back DH & I figured out that this is the longest either of us has ever lived in the same place in our whole lives, which amazed us. We are both 68, so we are beginning to slow down. The house is on an acre of land, and years ago I decided that it was entirely too large for me to garden like I did when I had a 50′ x 100′ lot in a subdivision in Houston. So he has taken over the mowing and has also been pruning overgrown landscaping. I figured that eventually that would get old, and it may have already started to because yesterday he mentioned that he might want to sell the house rather than do an extensive kitchen/den/dining room remodel that we’ve been talking about for a few weeks.
But at this point in our lives, there are things that don’t work well for us here. There’s no place to walk except our block-long cul de sac, and the traffic on the main road has gotten really bad, with little visibility of oncoming traffic when we are trying to pull out of our street. His kids live in Indiana and Florida, so the grandkids aren’t nearby. And the house is what they call a “raised rancher”, which means we come in the front door and walk up a flight of stairs to the living area. I assumed I’d solve that one day with a stair lift, but that won’t fix the traffic problem.
So at this point it seems like we’re in for a change, but I don’t know yet what that change will be. The good news is we don’t have to do anything right away except start getting rid of some of the stuff we’ve accumulated over 20 years. When I moved from Texas to MD I had only been in the same house for 12 years and that was quite an undertaking. Moving is a good way to shed excess belongings though.
In my husband’s field, and at his level of expertise, when he changes jobs, we move. Up until the last move a year ago, each move was made with the underlying idea of, ” …and we’ll stay here forever!” But before this last one, I realized that we’ve actually moved, on average, every seven years. This move got us to a little town in Oklahoma, and most of the people around us were born here, lived here all their lives, and plan to die here. (Every so often I meet people who tell me that no, they aren’t from heree because they were born and raised in the next little town 10 miles away.) They assume that their kids will do the same, even though opportunities are limited and getting more so each year. Housing costs are low, cost of living is low, and the necessities of life are fairly close at hand. Oh, and the people are very nice. But if we want to be closer to our grown children, we’ll have to move because there is nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, for younger people here. So far, we’ve managed to get the family together at least once a year. But after last year’s travel (crossing the country with four dogs in an RV with the year’s first blizzard at our heels), it’s obvious that in 10 years, we won’t be thinking of that kind of travel as an adventure, but as a major chore.
So while I envy people who are able to bloom where they’re planted, I think the reality for many people these days is that we have to keep getting re-potted if we’re going to have careers instead of jobs while also doing what’s best for our families.
Another view –
My wife and I are close to the same decision point. Our son is just two years away from college. But we have decided to make sure we stay in our current house until he is through with college as well as high school.
My parents moved half way across the country the same month I started college. The feeling of dislocation for me was intense. I was away from home at school, yet my home was also gone! I developed a feeling of rootlessness that last a long time. I grew to hate the question, “So where’s home?”
18 might be the legal age a son or daughter becomes an adult, but I think most of us at that point still need a ‘home’ to know they can go back to….
@Lee Stevens – my parents got divorced when I was in college and both moved to 1 BR apartments, leaving me feeling stranded (though at least they were in the same city) and making it difficult to stay with them. For this reason, I want to stay in my place at least until my son finishes grad school and if he doesn’t find a local job, any move will be to a 2 BR so he can stay with me easily.
Speaking as someone whose parents changed houses (though not cities) while I was away at school, I have to say it’s probably a kind decision for the kiddo if you keep the home she’ll come back to as the home she grew up in for at least a few more years.