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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Grief: It’s What’s for Dinner!

I’m having a lot of nightmares recently, but not nightmares about falling from a great height or showing up at the office without my pants on. Actually, they’re less like traditional nightmares and more like scenes from florid Spanish-language soap operas: upsetting and awkward confrontations with old friends, deeply inappropriate interludes with former lovers, always ending in recriminations and heartbreak. I assume this is normal toxic fallout from our recent cross-country move and subconsciously I’m grappling with the separation from loved ones, or it could simply be that I’m eating dinner too late. Either way, I do not like it.

You know how, when ambient light is low, you can see better with your peripheral vision? In a similar way, I find that grief is sometimes more easily apprehended when approached indirectly. So, for example, thinking explicitly about the distance separating me from Max (or Jen or Matt or Cami…) leaves me feeling sad but not crushed, wistful but not despondent. Yet listening to anything by John Denver makes me want to steer the car off the nearest cliff.

Driving to Boston over Labor Day Weekend, Robin and I were listening to my “70’s Country-Folk Guys” playlist, and after being lulled into complacency by Glen Campbell and Gordon Lightfoot, I was violently sucker-punched by the philosophical mountain man balladry of John Denver:

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway
Traveled by many, remembered by few
Lookin’ for something that I can believe in
Lookin’ for something that I’d like to do with my life

There’s nothin’ behind me and nothin’ that ties me
To somethin’ that might have been true yesterday

…he sang in that mellow, sympathetic voice of his, and I knew exactly what he meant. Every word of that song was written to describe my feelings at this very moment.

I don’t know what the future is holdin’ in store
I don’t know where I’m goin’, I’m not sure where I’ve been…

…he continued, and the tears streamed down my cheeks. Yes! I thought to myself. That is exactly how I feel!

I don’t know where I’m goin’!

Nothin’ ties me to somethin’ that might have been true yesterday!

* * * *

In other, less navel-gazing news, Robin was finally reunited with her luggage. After countless infuriating phone calls to Delta (phone calls made by Robin, by me, and by the elusive “Sharon”), courier driver Jesse delivered the bag to us on August 30 (24 days after Delta lost it). Jesse kindly consented to have his picture taken to commemorate the event.

“I still gotta deliver bags to Westfield, South Hadley, and Hartford before I can sleep tonight,” Jesse lamented. “My boss doesn’t understand that you can’t work people to death and stack ‘em up with twenty deliveries a day and not get a few traffic tickets. It’s just not reasonable,” he continued. Robin and I nodded in sympathy, eager to get inside and open the bag, but Jesse pressed on, telling us about the prostate exam he had that morning, and things his co-workers did to piss him off, and his diabetes, and some other stuff I can’t remember.

Eventually, Jesse sped off into the setting sun, and we examined the contents of Robin’s long-lost luggage. Personally, I wouldn’t have blamed “Sharon” if she had snagged a blouse or a pair of shoes for her trouble, but nothing was missing, nothing was broken, and – most amazingly – the vegetarian ham Robin had packed was still good!

* * * *

Last week, we attended a reception at Westfield State College for all the new faculty members (and their partners, apparently, since I was there and nobody kicked me out).

I always feel awkward at those things, so I looked around for a prop to occupy my hands. To my relief, they had beer. I tried my best to play the affable-and-somewhat-hip partner, and shook lots of hands, including the hand belonging to a new teacher in the Math department who looked liked the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. He was sporting a silver ponytail, so we bonded over the oppression of men with long hair. He also wore a fanny pack, which I tried to overlook.

Conversation was just beginning to drag when Max called on my cell phone. He was preparing for work, and “just called to talk” and that made me happy.

After the reception, Robin gave me a private tour of her small office and her brand new iMac. She taught her first class at Westfield State College today (September 5).

* * * *

Ever since we started looking for a house over here, we have struggled with the “Springfield Question.” You can get a lot of house for your dollar in Springfield, and at one time it was known as the “City of Homes,” but these days, it has a bad reputation. “They have a lot of violent crime there,” we were told. “Don’t walk the streets after dark,” concerned acquaintances warned us. One person told us that Springfield was “in receivership.” I’m not even sure what that means, but, based on the context, I’m guessing it’s something negative.

After driving around Springfield, and talking to some folks who actually live there, we started to wonder about the real meaning of all these dire warnings. I was particularly suspicious since these are exactly the kinds of things people always said about Mountlake Terrace, where I grew up. When people said those things about Mountlake Terrace, I think what they really meant was more like, “Be careful; lots of poor and working-class people live there.”

With amazing consistency, people steered us toward Northampton or Easthampton, the two Whitest and most affluent cities in the area. Next on the list (in descending order of desirability) was Holyoke, which – though it has a decrepit downtown area – is at least closer to Northampton than Springfield. Holyoke is considered an “up-and-coming” neighborhood, and is also the “Birthplace of Volleyball,” if that’s a selling point for you.

This is downtown Holyoke:

So is this:

Right out of the gate, we found a house in the much-reviled Springfield that we both loved; we defied the naysayers and made a full-price offer. In response, the owner took the house off the market.

After that disappointing experience, we listened to the experts and confined our search to Holyoke, which seemed like a reasonable halfway point; a town where we could afford a huge house and live near the “cultural center” of Northampton (which is kinda like a New England-y Fremont), and still not feel that we had completely abandoned our goal of living a less segregated life.

We had our hearts set on a particular house in Holyoke, one with a sprawling yard, several decks (some enclosed), and an expansive top floor master suite. The only drawback was a hideous “parking pad” the current owner had installed, which his own realtor referred to as “an abortion.” We wanted that house and were willing to pay top dollar for it, but Robin made it very clear that my first job would be removing that grotesque parking pad, which was structurally unsound and also blocked the entire front of the house. We made an offer, they counter-offered, we made a counter-counter-offer, but then something strange happened: The owner made a counter-offer that was higher than the initial asking price. At first we just assumed that the owners didn’t understand the rules of negotiation, but that wasn’t the problem at all: Turns out they were days away from foreclosure, and to take any less than the amount they owed would bury them even deeper in the hole. We backed away slowly, fearing that we might also get sucked into the financial vortex swirling around that house and its hideous parking pad.

Undeterred, we located another house in Holyoke – this one was a bloody mansion, with incredible stonework, 12 rooms, a completely finished basement, you name it. It was much too large for us and grossly out of our price range, but we figured “what the hell, it’s been sitting on the market for four months!” and boldly made an offer 50k below the asking price.

“They were, um… offended by your offer,” our realtor told us later. “Their realtor actually laughed out loud. They are not even going to counter-offer. Please don’t embarrass me like that again.”

Holyoke, it seemed, did not want us.

Around this time, Robin read about a music festival going on in downtown Springfield. With nothing to do that afternoon, she went down to check it out. She sat in the park along with the other Springfield residents and listened to a local band. White women from downtown offices took a lunchtime stroll past an Amish woman selling baked goods. An older African-American man was rocking out to the music and a White guy in a wheelchair bobbed his head in time with the beat. Jewish businessmen ate their lunch together. I guess Robin had some kind of epiphany, because by the time I arrived home from work, she had made a decision.

“Why are we all focused on Holyoke?” she demanded, apparently forgetting that I’d been saying this all along. “Springfield is full of working class people just like our families; just like the towns we grew up in. By not considering Springfield, I feel like we’re just buying into the propaganda that separates us by race and economic class.”

A long conversation followed this pronouncement, but the upshot was: Now we’re looking for houses in Springfield.

On the same day, a realtor sent me information on a Springfield house we had looked at and rejected months earlier. The owner didn’t want to officially list it on the MLS or put up a sign, but the realtor had been showing it to people who might be interested.

“Remind me why we disqualified this house, again?” I asked Robin, but the only thing she could come up with was that there were “prettier houses on the same street.”

“This house is in excellent condition, in a beautiful tree-lined historical neighborhood, with the same square footage as our ‘dream house,’ it’s absolutely gorgeous, two blocks from the park, a fountain at the end of the street, and it’s $25,000 less than we were going to pay for that other house, with no ‘abortion’ to remove,” I reminded her. “You’re telling me we dismissed this house simply because there’s another house down the street that looks even better? Seriously? That’s the best you can do?”

We drove over and walked around the neighborhood that night, just to get the lay of the land. The house is in the “Cozy Corner” area of the Forest Park neighborhood, meaning: it’s in the Whitest, most affluent part of the Whitest, most affluent neighborhood in a city that is not particularly White or affluent.

Two blocks away from the house is the actual “Forest Park,” 735 acres of old-growth forest, walking and hiking trails, tennis courts, picnic gazebos, fountains and rose gardens. There’s also a zoo and an eternal flame burning in tribute to JFK. Noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in NY, designed Forest Park as well.

Walking around the neighborhood, we noted the profusion of kids playing in the yards and on the sidewalks, the trees lining the street, the stately Victorian homes, the fountain one block away, the forest beckoning at the end of the street, and it felt like someplace we could imagine living. A neighbor from across the street came over and introduced himself (Steve) and he was happy to tell us everything we wanted to know about the neighborhood, his kids, nearby Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, traffic volume, the restrictive guidelines of the Springfield Historic Commission (founded by his Mom, so he wasn’t too critical), and his burgeoning kettle-corn business. “The only dolphin-safe, kosher, vegetarian, trans-fat free, 100% organic, free trade kettle-corn made in Springfield!” he boasted. “It’s different from those other brands!”

The next night, our realtor made an appointment for us to tour the house, and that sealed the deal: we both loved it. We put in an offer (10k below asking price), and the seller accepted two days later. We handed over an earnest money deposit to the selling agent, paid for the title search (or something; I’m not totally clear what that $392 was for…), scheduled the first inspection, and we hope to close by October 3rd. Here are some pictures of the house and neighborhood:

As soon as the deal looks solid, we have to hire a moving company to pick up all of our belongings from Seattle and drive them across the country to us here in Springfield.

Then we can begin the most important phase of the whole process: Setting up my movie-viewing room…

* * * *

Now that we’re preparing to leave, it seems like the perfect time to share some of the other highlights of living here in our Regency Park Condo. Each and every day, we are greeted by this cheery and colorful “Welcome” sign at the door to our unit:

The lucky devils one unit over get to enjoy this professionally-designed diorama. Quack Quack!:

I previously included some photos of the contemporary artwork featured in our unit, but somehow neglected to include a couple of key pieces; perhaps because Robin had hidden them in the closet. Again – remember that all of this artwork is included in our fully-furnished unit at no extra charge!

I can only speak for myself, but when I sit down to tuck into a hearty meal, nothing brings me more pleasure than a delicate and artful centerpiece on the family table:

If said centerpiece includes plastic figurines of monkeys fondling each other, so much the better:

More than once, wandering through the bedroom feeling peckish, I have been tempted to pluck a walnut or a ripened gourd out of this seasonal basket decoration, which hangs next to the bed. Yum!:

* * * *

The pile of construction debris has now been carefully folded and stacked, which I suppose is an improvement:

4 Comments

  1. I would like to go on record as saying that I would love to see a movie in the movie room if I make it out there … which is actually possible if I can get into the Boston marathon in the next couple years …

  2. Congrats you guys!! Beautiful house. The description of the neighborhood sounds just lovely.

  3. Nice house! Seriously! But I gotta say that it reminds me of Joan Cleaver….err, Robin Cleaver, err…. Beaver, you there??!

    Yui just LOVES the centerpiece….well, as a laughing stock, at least…

    Good post!

  4. What a gorgeous house! Congratulations! I hope that settling in is less of a chore and more of a wonderous occasion for both of you!
    And I know what it is like to be seperated from your kiddo…or in my case kiddoes… Mine are half a continent away… not quite as far as Max but still not close to me… Lots of phone calls are very necessary:)
    Hang in there!!

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