Archive for November 14th, 2007

James Howard Kunstler is my favorite curmudgeon. When I discovered him, I was elated to find a kindred spirit in terms of how I view the modern world. His writing, for better or worse, plays right into my deepest suspicions that the human species is headed for unprecedented peril in the coming years. He also shares my dismay about what has been going on in the building industry since the end of WWII. Things are ugly out there. Strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, big box retail chains…welcome to the new American landscape.

When I was ten my family moved from a big, old rented house in an urban suburb (closer to the edge of the city) to a tiny little cape cod in a WWII neighborhood that, at the time, was in a more far-flung suburb that abutted wide swaths of open space and farmland. Once I had my driver’s license, one of my favorite things to do was to go for a solitary ride on a summer twilight, out past civilization and into what felt, to me anyway, like the middle of nowhere. Enter the Housing Boom about five years later. It happened so fast that coming home from a two week vacation was disorienting. New strip malls, new housing developments, even new streets, were sprouting up overnight. I hate overusing the word “literally,” but I mean literally overnight.

And the houses. Commonly referred to as McMansions (my grandmother calls them “Big Uglies”), they are like giant behemoths rising from the prairie, their faces blank and expressionless. They are located in subdivisions with names like “Fox Run Estates,” “Huntington Grove,” “Lake View Manor,” and “Deer Path Village.” Never mind the fact that a fox, a grove of trees (they were all cut down), a lake (it’s a flood retention pond) or a deer would never be seen by the residents of the so-named developments. In these developments, there are maybe four housing styles (“The Tudor,” “The Windsor,” “The Edwardian,” etc.), but they all essentially look the same. They smell like drywall, like the VOCs radiating from the nylon wall-to-wall carpeting, like contractor-grade latex paint. They have hollow core doors and fake brass fixtures. They start falling apart before the ink dries on the closing documents.

I’ve always wanted to live in a really old house. Really old. As old as possible. I am even sometimes disappointed that I didn’t grow up in New England, where I might possibly live in a house built in the 18th century. Here in Chicago, the oldest house was built around 1836, and it would be next to impossible to find anything anywhere near that vintage on the market. I like the spicy, hardwood smell of old houses; I like the way the floorboards creak and groan. I like the wavy leaded glass windowpanes, and the fireplaces that kept ladies with petticoats and hoop skirts warm on cold winter evenings. I like the impenetrable plaster walls, the graceful archways and the possibility of finding an ancient relic in a long-forgotten corner of the attic.

My great-great grandfather built such a house. Out of stone. With his bare hands. It still stands today (albeit with an unfortunate 3-car garage added on by the current owners). It is graceful, solid and strong. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The windowsills are 24 inches deep, a perfect spot for my great-grandfather, as a boy, to gaze outside or take a nap. It sits amid the flat farmland on the upper tip of “The Thumb” in Michigan, a somewhat overlooked part of the state, where my relatives were among the first European settlers. I can hardly imagine living in a world where people built their own houses, houses that were as unique as their owners, with their very own idiosyncrasies etched into the stone, timber, mortar and brick. These houses have history. These houses are alive.

Which one would you choose?


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Autumn seems to be a favorite season for many people (myself included), especially in the Midwest. After enduring mind-boggling heat and humidity levels on a par with the Deep South, we finally get some relief. The air feels crisp, fresh and alive. Fall is filled with new smells – out with the fetid garbage languishing in the alleys, and in with the spicy smells of oaks, the woodsmoke from chimneys and the first whiffs of holiday baking. Kids walking home from school go out of their way to schlump through the leaves, and…wait a minute…where are the leaves?

I know there is no such thing, really, as “normal” weather. Chicago, and the Midwest in general, is known for its weather extremes. Twenty below is cold, a hundred above is hot, and we’ve had both and everything in between. But things really do seem to be changing. It used to snow, for example. Now it rains in January. I have witnessed hail on four occasions in the past year and a half, and only remember seeing hail a handful of times in my life prior to that.

I like weather; I like living in a place where the seasons change, and often dramatically. Ever since I was a kid, weather and seasonal changes have been important to me. I haven’t taken any official polls or anything, but I think I might be a little more preoccupied with the weather than your normal average person. Over the years I’ve noticed some things, one of them being that November 1st, the day we’re busy nursing our candy hangovers and trying to scrub off the last remnants of face paint, almost perfectly coincides with the falling of the last few lonely leaves. The wind starts to blow, sending little mini-tornadoes of leaves scattering down the sidewalk and then, whoosh – in what seems like the blink of an eye, it suddenly looks like…November. Except for this year. This is what it looks like from my back balcony today (well, yesterday afternoon, but it still looks like this):


Granted, there are several glorious gold and red maples up and down the street, but that just started happening in the past ten days or so. It just feels so…wrong. Monday was 66 degrees, yesterday was 60 and…it’s halfway to December! I’m not usually impressed one way or the other when people use their own weather memories and experiences to guide them in their feelings about climate change. So this isn’t really about that. It’s just…I miss fall.

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