What is the best house? | Varyer

What is the best house?

I. In the Nest

There’s no place like home, but— let’s get deep 🕳 here —what is home? A tastefully beige McMansion? A sense of spiritual belonging?

At a young age, there isn’t much to define you beyond the bare logistics of your home. Unless you’re dealing with harsh circumstances (evil stepmother, lead paint, etc.), it’s natural to assume your way of life is the best way. I felt that way, safe in my family’s house; surely there was nothing more tasteful than our Wonka-brown shag carpet. It blew my little mind to see the homes of friends and neighbors. As we now know thanks to Instagram, comparing your lifestyle to others’ can produce feelings of insecurity and depression, but it’s also very fun. Things are strange at other people’s houses.

My fanciest childhood friend’s house had an alarm system, which I found deeply exotic. At night, her house felt like a nuclear submarine, the alarm panel by the front door flashing radar-like every thirty seconds. They considered their property worth defending. I agreed; I was dazzled by the bathroom in particular, with its double sinks and Jacuzzi, and I imagined their home to be the equivalent of a luxury spa. When I finally gained access to such an establishment, decades later, I understood how far off I’d been. But still, the house was full of clever features I’d never known existed—heated floors, a glass-doored refrigerator. Inspired, I cobbled together some of my own decadent practices, like putting my jeans in the dryer to heat them up before I got dressed on winter mornings.

They kept it on the coffee table!

Most houses weren’t like my fancy friend’s. I babysat for lunatic parents who kept a detailed spreadsheet of their food inventory taped to the regular white fridge, forcing their children to cross off each Mint Milano as they ate it. Once, the children (also lunatics) threw a watermelon through a glass patio door while I was busy flipping through their parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex.¹ I swept up the glass and examined the watermelon; it was unharmed and therefore didn’t need to be tracked on the spreadsheet.

Another friend lived in a decaying Victorian. Her father made her crawl down the spider-infested laundry chute to retrieve stuck socks. Fleeing these vignettes felt like escaping a Kienholz installation, and I was overcome with gratitude for my humble shag-carpeted home.

Even at my grandparents’ houses, there were unfamiliarities to confront. Rotary phones, a cup of dentures, unnerving photos of my parents looking perfectly content before I was born.


Worse than strangeness was sameness. I visited my crush’s house and opened a random door, dreaming of what it might reveal: a shrine to me? A bomb shelter? I was devastated to find a bathroom. I’d thought he was special, but he had a toilet in his house and presumably he’d used it. Gross. 🧻 💔

They kept it on the coffee table!

II. Leaving Home

HGTV’s Property Brothers aren’t afraid to get deep. “Sometimes I think people just don’t notice that they’re no longer passing quickly through negative space, but in fact are renting to own.” —Jonathan Scott, Property Brother, from his memoir It Takes Two: Our Story. What does this mean? It sounds almost metaphysical, but maybe he’s just confused about how a lease works.

Eventually we’re all cast out of childhood and forced to find new families and new houses, ideally with a radiant heating system. It’s a sick game of psychosexual musical chairs but we do the best we can.

As the 2008 real estate crash brewed, I moved into my first place in a new city. I stole half-ply toilet paper from my job. There were neon orange price stickers on everything I’d bought at the dollar store: the colander, the desk lamp, the dish soap, the boxes of pasta. The price tags were impossible to peel off, so I told myself they functioned as ‘pops of color,’ a design concept I’d picked up from the original Queer Eye. In an attempt to better myself, I illegally downloaded HGTV episodes and studied copies of Architectural Digest that someone left in the laundromat.²

HGTV’s Property Brothers aren’t afraid to get deep. “Sometimes I think people just don’t notice that they’re no longer passing quickly through negative space, but in fact are renting to own.” —Jonathan Scott, Property Brother, from his memoir It Takes Two: Our Story. What does this mean? It sounds almost metaphysical, but maybe he’s just confused about how a lease works.

After a few months of idly browsing Architectural Digest, I got the feeling it was trying to tell me something. Laura Dern’s house was a “Film Buff’s Dream.” Jennifer Aniston’s house was a “Dreamy California Home.” Mandy Moore had a “Dreamy 1950’s Home.” Sheryl Crow owned a “Southern Dreamscape.” Paloma Faith’s house was a “Kaleidoscopic Dream.” Lee Daniels had a “Minimalist Dream.”

Was this all, indeed, a dream? Is the best home an unattainable illusion? What was Wilson from Home Improvement hiding?

I’m still working to understand why urine is such a motif in my life…

My pursuit of the best house only grew more urgent as I bounced between increasingly squalid apartments. One had a pale yellow toilet, a design choice which made the toilet look perpetually unflushed. When I lived with a hippie roommate, the toilet was perpetually unflushed. In one grim hamster’s nest of a dwelling, I went so far as to mine geodes from a local park, thinking they’d perk up the place, but when I busted them open they weren’t the elegant violet crystal I’d expected. They were white with dense yellow centers, resembling dog pee in snow.³
Ever since, I’ve avoided DIY decor in favor of just shopping, fancying myself a feminist building my own dowry. I load up my cart with artisanal towels that will be perfect for the guest bath of my future house. Self improvement at my age just makes me bitter—why didn’t I figure this out before the prime of my life was over?—but home improvement, done right, can be a treat.

I’m still working to understand why urine is such a motif in my life…

III. Mortgage Me

Socrates chose death over exile (something I think about each day I remain in New York), but in the modern housing market, we can’t give up so easily.

Occasionally I receive unusual texts from my boyfriend. Rather than a video of bears getting caught in a hammock or a demand for a specific color of Gatorade from the bodega, the message is respectful, curious, polite: “Hello, what do you think about this home?” This is an autofill greeting from the Zillow link that pops up next. We’re always on Zillow, enjoying the feeling of power that comes from having backup lives in every browser tab.

Larissa MacFarquhar once described romantic love as semi-delusional, “an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems.” This could also apply to my Zillow aspirations. Any outcome is reliant upon the fragile, converging hypotheticals of the real estate market, the whims of a loan officer, my steady employment, and me securing a partner who agrees that there’s only one thing to do with original mahogany woodwork (paint it white). 😈

Select synonyms for ‘cozy’ that I googled every ten minutes while writing this: snug, restful, pleasant, sheltered, agreeable, homey.

I don’t want to mortgage my life on something that isn’t the best, so it’s important to weigh my options carefully. Evaluating my most-coveted Zillow listings, they’re mostly on the smaller side. Maybe my subconscious is protecting me, shielding me from lusting after the palaces I can’t afford. Or maybe it’s evolutionary instinct. Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger claims that “the kangaroo pouch is our ideal,” meaning that humans gravitate to intimate, small spots. As children, our heroes live in snug⁴ shelters created with natural materials. The Berenstain Bears and Pooh lived in tree stumps. Polly Pocket lived in a clamshell. And the Smurfs lived in Smurf houses, which the fandom wiki explains are roofed by “an actual mushroom top that the Smurfs find in the forest.”

Select synonyms for ‘cozy’ that I googled every ten minutes while writing this: snug, restful, pleasant, sheltered, agreeable, homey.

I had a childhood friend whose life was so steady and safe that she cried when her family’s ancient fridge broke and could not be resuscitated. Her indulgent parents kept the dead appliance in their garage until she came to terms with the loss. Not that I’m looking to get derailed emotionally by household appliances, but I wouldn’t mind that sense of stability. You could achieve it in a sweet bunker like a Smurf house.

It’s a compliment. If you aren’t depressed you’re willfully disregarding reality. But it’s generally allowed to not think about other people being sad (i.e., if they don’t have a house) for a few hours because then you might feel sad (self-care 😉 ).

Some childhood ideals haven’t aged well. I would shrivel and die within 24 hours of living in my yearned-for covered wagon. But I believe in Hertzberger’s kangaroo ideal: we are always searching for a safe harbor. We only delude ourselves into thinking we’ve matured out of our kangaroo-pouch needs. A sunny glass Craig Ellwood house, deflecting any sense of death or darkness, looks nice, but our time on Earth is temporary and we must face that. Do you really belong in a sensuous gated villa? Someone like you? Someone who’s depressed?⁵ Plus, a mansion is pretty gross in terms of income inequality.

Children play MASH to see if they’ll end up in a mansion, apartment, shack, or house. Apartments, shacks, and houses are all workable under the kangaroo principle, but a mansion would only make the self-aware resident feel like a lost troll crashing through Versailles. Get yourself a house that supports the natural duality of hiding from the world while still accepting reality. From the womb to the Smurf house to the grave; all very cozy spots. The best spots.



Home is where the heart is,

Molly

It’s a compliment. If you aren’t depressed you’re willfully disregarding reality. But it’s generally allowed to not think about other people being sad (i.e., if they don’t have a house) for a few hours because then you might feel sad (self-care 😉 ).