Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Soup's On

You know how you reach for the can of Progresso Minestrone at the grocery but when you get home, you discover you picked up the Progresso Creamy Clam Chowder instead – and you don’t do dairy?

The last two weeks, I’ve been reaching for optimism, anticipation and the exhilaration that initially fueled my decision to sell the condo and move to San Francisco, but I keep coming up with frustration.

As soon as I caved and spent money updating the place, as soon as I lowered the price, all calls from real estate agents stopped, and I found myself sitting alone in my undecorated, uncolorful, completely uninteresting home. Oh, I still made the bed every morning, dried out the sink after running the faucet and picked up scattered cat toys. (At least someone is having fun here!) But it was lonely.

I also continued my research, talking to friends who have been through this process and to friends of friends eager to make suggestions about how to lure in customers. “Consider painting the kitchen cabinets,” said one woman, unaware that a month ago I paid to have the cabinets painted. Put in a high-end electric fireplace, suggested another.

One friend wanted me to buy a small table to place beside the rocker, to hold books and a wine glass. I explained I had just gotten rid of two small tables, and was not in the mood to buy another. “People like a place that looks spacious,” said one man. I donated the big couch and arranged to send the dining room furniture to a consignment shop. Hearing that, another friend opined that it’s easier to sell a place with furniture in it.

Finally, I have figured out that everyone has an opinion, a thought, a point of view – that there is no one way to get this done. Everyone also has a favorite realtor, a person who would know exactly how to help me. As it happens, I have a realtor who has been helping me a great deal, a realtor who laughed and nodded in agreement when I said, “This is all a crap shoot, right?”

Of course, knowing that and dealing with it are two different things.

As I told friends a few weeks ago, I am annoyed that I have not sold the condo but I am even more annoyed that I am annoyed, because this is not on any scale a tragedy. I just finished reading Dave Eggers’ “What Is the What.” Valentino Achak Deng and his people have suffered innumerable tragedies, endured great suffering and been treated unconscionably again and again in several countries, including this one. His response has been to build a school in his native Sudan.

Me -- I’m just annoyed, impatient, crabby.

This morning I watched two young men remove my dining room furniture from my home. To my mind, I had all the wrong reactions, a flood of feelings that pleased me as little as Creamy Clam Chowder. As I remembered many a wonderful dinner around that table, I felt sad. As I admired the unusual china cabinet one last time, I felt nostalgic. As I viewed the last of the chairs being carried out the door, I started to miss the beautiful fabric on each one.

When the young men were out of earshot, I yelled at myself. “Stop being so stupid!” I said aloud. Hey, I believe in emotional honesty. Feelings deserve to be felt, acknowledged and felt even more deeply, if needed. However, I detected a false note in my sentimental feelings for the dining room set.

First, I picked out a fabulous animal print fabric for those chairs – your basic black-on-brown cheetah print – and the upholsterer put the fabric on backward. The chairs came home looking quite distinctive – gold-on-black splatters – and I was devastated. My friend Edward told me he thought they were unique and quite beautiful, and that I should live with them a while. I did, and they stayed, but they were never exactly what I had in mind.

Second, the china cabinet is unusual – it looks like an old Philco Radio – but I bought the whole set about 36 years ago from a woman in University City who was moving to a condo in Florida. No emotional tug is required as we part, as this set was a purchase, not a precious heirloom in the family for generations.

Third, I know this table has to go so I can move to San Francisco and buy another table, something smaller, and then welcome family and friends to join me for wonderful dinners. You can’t move on successfully if you are dragging along everything from your past.

As I sorted out each emotion, I realized that I was operating with all the wrong feelings, allowing inappropriate reactions to color my view of the circumstances. By the time the last piece of furniture was loaded in the truck, I had successfully adjusted my state of mind. I actually started humming, happy again that I am trying to invent myself anew. I may even be willing to practice patience once again.

Just then the cell phone rang. An agent was calling, and she wants to show the condo this evening. Bring on the Minestrone!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stay Behind the Ropes, Please

Velvet ropes – that’s it! The only thing missing in the condo now is velvet ropes, the kind used in historic mansions to keep tourists from touching the furniture. Beyond the ropes are the dioramas, perfect replicas of rooms as they appeared during the particular historic era.

Welcome to the Salmon Sanctuary, ladies and gentleman. From 1998 to 2009, a newspaper reporter lived here with her cat…

Only of course these rooms do not reflect my time here. Every room has been neutered – excuse me, neutralized – to appeal to people who want to be able to visualize their furniture, their wall art, their knickknacks (a word only slightly easier to spell than “tchotchkes”), their area rugs, their photographs.

Look at that blank living room wall! Where is the batik of Ganesh, purchased in Bombay for $10? In the back of the closet. What happened to that life-size fabric seagull that soared in the office, bought on a cruise to Mexico? Nine-year-old Elliot has it, a consolation prize since I canceled the downsizing sale. (He wanted to help.) Whither the massive “Yes We Can” poster? Gone to Columbia, to live with other liberals.

The dining room table is set, though no one is coming over. Fluffy towels wait patiently by the soaking tub. Nearby is a hardback copy of “Moby Dick,” a little joke. (It’s a joke for two reasons. First, I love the book, and I would never get in the tub with any hardback. Second, my play “MOBY” is waiting, patiently as those towels, for production.) The new stainless cooktop is spotless – never used and ready for the new owner.

Speaking of “new,” let’s discuss real estate jargon. George and I have sorted this out, but maybe you have not thought about it. In real life, “new” means unused, like the cooktop, and "newer” means purchased and installed more recently than the old cooktop, which was 34 years old. In real estate jargon, “new” means new in the conventional sense, but “newer” means older.

Go figure.

Oh! Go Figure is the name of a terrific fat girl store in San Francisco! Is that a sign?

Two years ago, I accidentally bought an entire set of fabulous living room furniture in Columbia, while shopping with friends for a bookshelf for their home. Yesterday, two strong young men took away the largest of the pieces, a 102-inch-long couch. I donated it, because I won’t have living space in S.F. big enough to contain that couch. What’s left behind (besides two cat toys, which Maggie ran in and retrieved immediately) is a lot of empty space.

I moved the small area rug in front of the fireplace (a completely fake fireplace, all lights and crackling and carrying on – but it’s about theater, not heat) and dragged my grandma’s golden oak rocker in to set the scene, so to speak. Hmmm…looks a little barren there still. I know -- I need a stack of antique blocks, so it looks as though the Victorian-era children just ran off to the kitchen to ask Cook for some gingerbread and milk.

That’s exactly what you would expect to see at Henry Shaw’s place, beyond the velvet ropes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Spinach Salad with Insight on the Side

Start with half a bag of baby spinach leaves that have been washed and gently dried. Add red bell pepper strips, a sliced hard-cooked egg and a handful of feta cheese crumbles. Throw in a few chopped walnuts, a dozen or so dried cranberries and some pumpkin seeds. Add ground pepper and a shake of Mrs. Dash. Toss with your favorite salad dressing.

Ta-da: Supper! Time to sit, eat, take stock.

The buffet and china cabinet are empty, except for the wine glasses I’m taking with me. The utility closet holds a few items I’m keeping, but is otherwise cleaned out. Kitchen cabinets and drawers contain only those dishes, glasses and utensils that are going to San Francisco. Winnowing of the pantry – not including food, of course – is almost complete. The file cabinet is empty. Half the dresser and vanity drawers are empty.

The closet – my huge, glorious closet that a real estate agent once described as “an Affton bedroom” – is still on the to-do list. The coat closet also is waiting for attention. Until last week, the closets were jam-packed with wall art. Then I toted 23 posters and pictures to a resale shop. I kept my favorites, and a few I’m on the fence about. I keep reminding myself I will have fewer walls in a small apartment.

As a result of eight trips to the Book Fair drop-off bin and several targeted donations, I have carted 46 boxes of books out of my condo. As I write this, I see a few more titles that could go. Don’t think that I have given away all my books – I still have enough to fill one large bookcase and one small; mostly poetry, books on writing and books on wildlife.

For the first time since I moved here 11 years ago, the storage closet in the basement is packed with furniture that was assessed as clutter when I put the place on the market. (Much of what’s in there is leaving Tuesday.) When I bought the condo, I did not realize that a storage closet was part of the deal. For years, just one item sat there: my grandfather’s metal lawn chair, a chair that my father had had sand-blasted and painted several times.

My grandfather died before I was born, so I did not know him, but I did know and love his chair. Many a spring, I brought it upstairs and put it on the deck. In May, when I decided to move to San Francisco, that chair was the first thing I thought of. Who should get the chair? I called my aunt, my dad’s only sister, and asked if she wanted her father’s chair. She did not. Then I called her red-haired son, my cousin Steve, who lives in Texas.

“I have Grandpa Corrigan’s metal lawn chair, and I can just see you sitting in it on your patio, barbecuing and enjoying a beer,” I said. Steve laughed and agreed that he could see that, too. When the family gathered for Aunt Betty’s 80th birthday in June, I drove the chair to the small town in Illinois where my aunt lives. Steve took it from the back of my car and we put in on the lawn. I went inside to get Aunt Betty.

We walked out to the yard and stopped in front of the chair. I asked my aunt if she remembered it. “I do,” she said, smiling. Then she sat – for the first time in 50 years – in her father’s chair. Throughout the afternoon, we all took turns sitting in the chair, a humble yet powerful link to those who came before us.

Preparing to leave St. Louis started with that metal lawn chair. In the process of giving away more things – many, many more -- I have been redefining myself, building on who I was, tweaking who I am, getting ready to welcome who I will become. Letting go of tangible objects has allowed me to make room for new routines in a new realm, and I now understand the value of that process.

All this, over a spinach salad.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ross Winter's Punch Bowl

Am I my resume?

The performers in “A Chorus Line” ask that the question during auditions for a show.

More to the point, am I my maternal grandmother’s cookie press? Her metal bunny cake mold? How about my paternal grandmother’s crystal sherbet glasses? Her monogrammed tablecloth? What about my father’s Navy uniforms? My mother’s embroidered handkerchiefs?

Am I Ross Winter’s punch bowl?

Of course I am not these things, and they are not me. Still, I found myself reluctant to get rid of that punch bowl, the hankies, the uniforms, the linens, the glasses, the cake mold (complete with ancient lingering crumbs) and the cookie press.

Eventually, my more practical self took over and I let go of all those items except the handkerchiefs. I’ve made it a point to keep something meaningful from each of these beloved family members to take with me when I move to San Francisco.

Am I discolored, misshapen pieces of Tupperware? Three chipped candles with missing wicks? A scratched-up soup pot? A raggedy, faded pink blanket? A rusty bread pan? Of course not – and what is this junk doing in my house? I made three trips to the condo's trash room today.

In the back of a kitchen cabinet I found a rice cooker for the microwave, complete with instructions. I bought it in 1997 and have yet to use it. In a box on a high shelf in the closet, I found a souvenir maraca from Cuba, a gift from friends of my parents when I was 10. Next I discovered a cache of grade-school art projects – not my son’s, but my own, in a box obviously packed by my mother. She died in 1973.

All week, I’ve been getting rid of Stuff -- winnowing and sifting, then packing up the car and driving boxes full of my past to a resale shop.

“What is this?” asked the manager as he unwrapped one of my donations.

“A candy dish,” I said. “It was my grandmother’s.” He looked surprised.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I kept my favorite one, the one that always sat on her coffee table with butterscotch drops in it.”

Did you know that most people use 80 percent of what they own only 20 percent of the time? I heard that on a radio program recently. I know what I use, and how often. The trick is to figure out what I’ll miss.

“I had a lovely home, full of lovely things, and when my husband died I got rid of almost everything,” counsels a neighbor. “I don’t miss any of it.” Another neighbor, encountered in the elevator today, echoed the same sentiment. “Things just don’t matter,” she said.

For years, I had a wall in my home office full of photos of whales. Now I don’t need those photos, because finally I am going to live near the real thing. One startling photo shows the raised tail of an immense right whale in Patagonian waters off Argentina. I took that picture from the back of a small boat, and though I had no time to aim or focus – the majestic tail rose suddenly, silently – it is the best photo I ever shot.

I know that I would miss that photo, so I’m taking it along to serve as a reminder, a touchstone of the past, as I head into the future. The punch bowl, however, is looking for a new home.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Baking for Imaginary Friends

Whoa – that vanilla candle needs dusting!

That’s how I spend my time now, with silly thoughts and impulsive cleaning, just in case someone wants to look at the condo. Or maybe “impulsive” is not the right word. I’m starting to think “compulsive” might be a better choice.

I now dust candles, wipe down the sink every time I turn it on, empty the trash if it holds even one lone banana peel, hide the damp towels after I shower, pick up the cat’s toys twice a day, arrange my library books so that any potentially offensive titles are on the bottom, carefully rinse any plate twice before it goes into the dishwasher and tuck away “to-do” lists where I will never find them until it’s too late to do whatever I had in mind.

Today I am baking pumpkin bread for tomorrow's Open House. I meant to bake it tomorrow, so the lovely aroma of cinnamon, clove and pumpkin would be strongest, but I decided I couldn’t handle the stress of baking and cleaning up on The Day.

The bread, of course, is for the people who come to look at the condo. I have come to think of these people as my Imaginary Friends. That’s because for the past three weeks, I have only imagined that someone would come.

This is not happening just at my place. I’ve spoken with plenty of people trying to sell homes who are drawing thin crowds, if any. Driving down the street, observing the many “For Sale” signs, I am tempted to stop, knock on doors and ask how the owners are feeling. Maybe we need to form a support group.

Right now (thanks for asking) I’m feeling good, because I made a new plan, a plan that finally feels right. For weeks, I’ve been waffling about whether to hire someone to run a downsizing sale for me, have the sale on my own (with friends, of course), haul stuff to consignment shops or donate whatever I choose not to hand to people – people whose taste I know -- who happen to stop by.

First, I contacted a person who runs sales. Then I interviewed friends who have held recent sales and friends who attend sales. I went so far as to buy little sale-price stickers. Friday, I visited consignment shops and stopped in at a resale shop that takes donations.

Finally! Finally, instead of waiting for the stars to align or the last piece of a puzzle to drop in or the specific answer to an ambiguous clue to occur to me, finally I started putting my skills into action. I know how to do research, and I’ve been doing some. Before this, I was just… waiting.

That is exactly what is driving me crazy about trying to sell the condo – it’s a passive process. You sign papers and get your info on a list and then you wait. I have allowed this insidious waiting mode to take over other aspects of my life. I was waiting to decide this or think about that. I was waiting for other people to make the case for one plan of action or another. One day, I was even waiting for the carpenter to help me hang one picture on a wall.

“Sure, I’ll help,” he said. “But I’m not sure what you want me to do.”

I remembered that I had hung all 46 pictures that used to be on the wall. I remembered that I do know how to hammer in a nail. I remembered that I have a brain, and I realized all this waiting has turned it to mush and left me feeling unconfident about so many things.

I pounded the nail into the wall, hung the picture and stopped waiting. Today I hauled six big boxes and three big bags of Stuff to the resale shop. I am not hiring someone to have a sale for me; nor am I doing all the work required to have a sale myself. I may send a few select pieces to a consignment shop – the dining room furniture likely would do well where the chandelier is now, at West End Galleries. But I am donating everything else. My tax preparer has explained how this works, and I am comfortable helping others while I help myself get ready to move.

Every day from now on, I am moving something out of the condo, moving something somewhere that others will find it, be able to afford it and enjoy it as much as I did. That is the route I am choosing to take on my way to San Francisco.

I don’t care what my Imaginary Friends think about that. I do hope they like the pumpkin bread.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Caribbean Solution

SPOILER ALERT: Johnny Depp did not – repeat, did NOT – show for my 90-minute Caribbean Therapy Body Treatment last night at Ginger Bay Salon & Spa in Kirkwood.

His loss. In his role as Jack Sparrow…excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp would have livened up the place considerably.

On the other hand, no one goes to Ginger Bay to liven up. The Caribbean Therapy Body Treatment is “a rejuvenating and nourishing treatment” designed “to create inner calm and renew the body and senses.”

First, you inhale aromatic essences and pick the one you like best. Even congested from the moldy fall air, I knew I liked tangerine and vanilla best. Then you get exfoliated. Next a seaweed masque is applied to detoxify your skin. Next, your attendant wraps you up and massages your scalp and face.

“I’m using a lightly scented flour water that is especially refreshing,” said Meghan. Flour. Water. Wait, I thought, in my exfoliated, detoxified state of relaxation – flour and water make paste. This nice young woman is spraying ingredients in my hair and on my face that any second now will turn to Elmer’s glue? Flour water?

The light in my dim-bulb brain went on. FLOWER water – she said "flower water." Not "flour water." Oh good. Back to mellowing out.

Yes, folks, that’s how bad it gets when you let the stress of trying to sell a condo get to you.

On Labor Day, when I was really going nuts over all the waiting, I remembered I had a gift certificate to Ginger Bay, a hefty one, courtesy of the Five Favorite Female Friends. Most of us no longer want Stuff, so we exercise the Spa Option. Everyone pitches in cash and the birthday celebrant trots off to a spa of her choice. Because I get regular therapeutic massages, I usually opt for a deluxe facial with Leah at Ginger Bay.

Do I have new wrinkles? Oh yeah – but I decided a Special Treatment was in order, and that called for hydrotherapy. After your seaweed masque is rinsed off, you get to lie face down on a table in a big shower room. The attendant blasts your body with warm water from a hose while six or seven or eight (who can count at a time like that?) showerheads hanging just above the table are opened up as well.

The effect is of warm rain pummeling your body, as though you were caught napping in the grass some night (no bugs, just soft grass) and suddenly a cloud above you opened up. The water jets move up and down your spine and across your back, massaging all those cramped and crabby muscles.

“People either love it or hate it,” said Meghan. “Of course, usually if they think they are going to hate it, they don’t sign up for it.” I did not respond. I could not. Water is my natural element. I wanted to lie there with warm water cascading over me forever.

Even a gift certificate won’t buy forever, but the consolation prize is that after you become one with the table, water dripping all around, as if apologizing for stopping the steady flow, Meghan massages you. Then, rejuvenated and nourished and calmed to the point that you wish you had a chauffeur, you stagger out to the car and drive home.

And Johnny Depp -- channeling Cher as Captain Jack Sparrow -- missed it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Peachy Therapy Session at Duff's

“I’m depressed.”

“Me, too.”

“I’m really mad.”

“I’m mad, too.”

“And my feelings are hurt.”

“Yes! My feelings are hurt, too.”

This discussion took place today at Duff’s, where my friend Karen and I discussed our general malaise over not being able to sell our homes. Hers has been on the market since April; mine since May. At first, we both had a reasonable stream of lookers. The stream turned into a trickle and then dried up. Now, the phone rarely rings.

Sitting at the table with us was George, whose home is not for sale. He asked why our feelings are hurt.

“I love my house,” Karen wailed, “and people who come to look at it say mean things about it.”

I nodded in agreement. “Really mean things.”

George asked, “Like what?”

"Some people didn't like my color scheme and some were annoyed that the perfectly good cooktop was old," I said. "So I let Pete come in and paint and I replaced the cooktop."

Karen said, “People look around my house and they say, ‘This is really big – and it needs a lot of work.' I already know that! That’s why I’m trying to sell it.” Karen had hoped to sell her nine-bedroom home “as is.” She sighed. “That’s not working.”

I asked if she has gone through the house to clear out clutter. Karen frowned. “I started to," she said. "I opened one closet and considered what to do with the contents. I really like to iron, and I decided I would rather iron than clean out that closet. I started ironing cloth napkins, and I ironed all of them. When I was finished, I counted them. I had ironed 350 napkins.”

Hey -- you have to do whatever works. “Did you go through anything else?” I asked.

Karen reported that she had opened a kitchen drawer, intent on filling a couple of boxes with extraneous kitchen tools. “I brought home a lot of boxes from work,” she said. “When I was finished in the kitchen, I had four items in the bottom of a great big box. Four. Total.”

We discussed the level of assistance provided by burying statues of St. Joseph. Karen has not tried it. I told her my statue has provided lovely blooms in the big pot of geraniums, but no buyers for the condo.

We discussed how we are smart women, good at being in charge, happiest when we are in control of our circumstances. Then we admitted that being smart isn’t helping, that we are not in charge of whether our places sell – much less when – and we are not in control.

We discussed that acknowledging all that made us even unhappier.

And so we moped, sitting at the table at Duff’s.

George was appropriately sympathetic. He assured both of us that he is the kind of home buyer who prefers “as is” offerings. He expressed indignation that the people who have looked at our properties have failed to recognize just how special our homes are, and have concentrated instead on minor flaws. Of course, George already has a house and is not in the market for another.

Sharing tales of woe at Duff’s was, in retrospect, therapeutic -- and the peach cobbler was delicious.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Degrees of Separation

Some stuff begs to be pitched or donated. Some wins the argument and remains on the shelf or in the drawer – until the next sweep. Chalk it up to degrees of separation.

I’ve learned that the longer stuff sits around, the less interesting it gets. Some items that made the cut the first time through, even survived a second survey, look useless at third glance. Because I will sell some stuff – one way or another – I’m now pitching less and storing more, but with each sweep through the condo, I’m mentally marking more stuff “Sell” instead of “Take and Treasure Forever.”

Probably this is because I’m starting to understand minimalism. That’s what happened to my friend Deb. She left this comment on an earlier blog:

“We emptied our house in the home sale frenzy. Had it painted, refused to have it "staged" professionally, and after 9 months of daily bed making, selling and giving away china, furniture, and odds and ends, then, shoving scattered, sundry items in cubbies when the house was to be shown, only to totally lose track of tax information, bills, notes with phone numbers, invitations and so much more, we removed it from the market.

“Now, our house feels more minimal and manageable.”

Speaking of manageable, yesterday I dusted. It took half the time dusting used to take, because I have almost no knickknacks on display and one-third the furniture that used to grace these rooms. Dusting was a snap! Why was I so entranced with stuff for so long?

Another friend filled a rented storage space after his divorce and headed for China for a couple of months. When he returned five years later, he opened the door to the storage space, peered in and thought, “I don’t want any of this. Why did I keep it?”

Lying in my really big bed in my really big bedroom this morning, I thought, “The next place I live will be one-third the size of this condo. I need to sift through stuff again.” A touch of fear flashed through my mind: “Wait! I don’t want to just camp in a new place; I want to make a nest! Don’t get rid of everything.”

Yet I’m already “camping” in the living and dining rooms, where 90 percent of the stuff has been cleared. The art is off the walls in every room, with a few exceptions. Forty-three boxes of books have been removed, along with two bookcases. The kitchen counters are cleared of all but the microwave, which I use all the time, and the KitchenAid mixer, which looks good.

Is this camping? No. But it is minimal and manageable, and you know – that’s really okay. And that’s the proper frame of mind for once again going through drawers and closets.