Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lives In A Baseket

The best tings about being known as a local history nerd is that people bring me old stuff.

One day in the winter 2003 I got a call from the secretary at my office. She was confused and concerned. Someone I’d never met had presented themselves at the front desk and left a soot-covered bushel basket, asking that she give it to me, saying they thought I’d enjoy it.

I love getting calls like that.

The contents of that filthy basket were found in the attic of a home being renovated on South 10th Street. It was crammed with letters, programs, invitations, and wallpaper samples. They provided a glimpse into the life of the Alexander family of Noblesville, brothers Harry and Fred, and their mother, Lou, between 1888 and 1900.

Fred Alexander wrote the earliest letters home from California. In those days young men dreamed of testing themselves in the untamed West, to “grow up with the land,” as they called it. Fred wrote home to the local paper describing his 1888 train trip across the plains and through the mountains. He then often wrote home from Pasadena where he struggled to make something of himself, working in a shoe store.

Throughout that winter I read those letters in the evening after work. I’d spread a towel across my lap and open a few of the filthy, blackened envelopes and carefully read. I’m sentimental enough to get a pang of heartache to think that the careful thoughts and feelings of an entire family, a record of 15 years of their lives could be left strewn in an attic and forgotten, covered with the dry-rot of old wood shingles and filtered debris from a reroofing job.

Time and again I thought, “I’m going to stop with this and give it all to a proper historian like Dave Heighway.” But then, greedily, each night, I’d open a few more letters and read. It was like reading someone’s diary - a guilty pleasure.

Summers in the early 1890s, Fred’s brother Harry wrote to his girlfriend, a young schoolteacher named Clara. During the school year she rented a room in the Alexanders’ 10th Street house, but spent each summer with her family in Clinton, Indiana. Harry’s letters to Clara give tiny glimpses into life in Noblesville in the 1890s. He describes the flowers planted in the yard, vegetables tended in the garden, the town’s gossip, the newfangled concrete paving of a sidewalk in front of his law office downtown, and the political goings-on in the Methodist Church choir. The letters mention once significant figures in Noblesville – Meade Vestal, leader of the town’s brass band, and Thomas Boyd, then Noblesville’s big man on campus, a state senator who would stand trial in a scandalous paternity suit in 1893.

In these letters Harry Alexander can been seen carefully cultivating a relationship with Clara. Delicate hints of affection – but not too much affection, suggest Harry was uncertain if his interest was returned. In each letter, he calls the Alexanders’ home, “The Rest Cottage.”

In 1892 Fred Alexander returned from California to the little house on 10th Street, called Anderson Street in those days. He falls in love with a girl from Frankton, named Gertrude. Letters over the next year tell a tragic story.

In spring of1893 Fred finds work in Chicago during the opening of the World’s Fair, writing faithfully to Gertrude, expressing his undying love. He finds an apartment for them and describes the people and the places in Chicago that he dreams will make up their world after they marry. He writes home before the wedding giving instructions to his brother Harry to, “rent a horse and carriage,” and “buy me a new shirt.” In autumn he comes home to ride in that carriage, wear that new shirt, and get married. But Gertrude is sick from a disease the letters never define. After the wedding they stay with her family in Frankton.

Then, in early 1894, Harry, who had gone to Frankton to help Fred through the impending tragedy, writes to Clara, boarding again at the Alexanders’ house in Noblesville, opening his letter with the stark phrase, “Gertrude is gone.” Just months after the wedding, Fred’s wife had died. Amid the jumbled debris in the bushel basket I found a stack of printed flyers, announcing Gertrude’s death. In his misery, Fred returned to California, then wandered to Florida.

But there were many happy things in that bushel basket – hand made invitations to the club parties that filled peoples lives before radio and television, like Shakespeare Club meetings in which members took turns reading the works of the bard. There were colorful, intricately printed invitations to recitals where local children would sing, play piano, or recite famous speeches. There was a program from the dedication of the First Presbyterian Church, a ribbon from “Bromo-Seltzer Day” at the World’s Fair in 1893, a program from a play at famed English’s Opera House in Indianapolis, graduation announcements, and calling cards left at New Year’s Day receptions.

As my winter wore on I followed Harry’s Alexander’s summer letters to Clara. By 1896 his affections were out in the open, and I followed letter by letter their wedding plans and his work to make the “Rest Cottage” just right for her. That summer he traveled regularly by train between Noblesville and Clinton, staying with her family there, missing her terribly when back home.

The last letters come from Fred, fighting in the Spanish-American war, still trying to make something of himself – this time in the military. From a small island near the Philippines, he tells of deprivations, military ineptitude, and personal disappointments.

I don’t know what became of the Alexander family. Don’t know how many children Harry and Clara had, whether Fred ever married again, or when they all said their last goodbye to the “Rest Cottage.” But I think of them every time I pass that little house on 10th Street.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Antidote for the Poison of Resentment

"Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

- Malachy McCourt

First time I saw that written on a scrap of paper and held to the refrigerator with a magnet, it startled me a little. I immediately thought, “Hell yeah! That rings true.” Anyone of us who ever harbored resentment in our heart toward another person knows full well it hurt us far more than it hurt the target.

But it took mulling McCourt’s quote for a couple weeks before I realized there are two ways to look at it – two lessons to be learned. Embracing one without the other is half a lesson learned.

The first way to see it: Somebody did you wrong, but don’t let your anger & hurt consume or define you.

We’ve all seen magazine articles, facebook posts, and self-help books and blogs with lists that give encouragement to people in times of emotional distress. The lists have titles like, “Rebuilding a New You,” or “Finding Strength in Hard Times.” For short-hand of what you'll find on such lists, sing a few bars of Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 hit, “I Will Survive.”

The general themes follow my initial gut reaction to McCourt’s quote: It’s not your fault. Somebody did you wrong. You’re strong enough to get over it. Rise above.

I read the entire 20+ point list about, “Finding Strength . . .” and it was enlightening, self-affirming, encouraging. But it left me with a nagging shadow of unease. What you never find on those lists, and what you won’t find in Gloria Gaynor’s song is a line that says, “The person that done me wrong might have, in part, done me wrong because I deserved it.” Instead the message is always self-affirming. But sometimes, that’s not all we need.

In my day job I’m a Realtor. I sometimes think of my sales career this way: “I’m always asking the pretty girl to dance, and she says no a lot.”

I do sometimes feel hurt by people who don’t choose me as their Realtor. But as much as possible I try not to go there. Seems like wasted time. Instead I look in the mirror and ask myself what I can do to make sure they say yes next time. I can’t change them. I can only change me. Assuming they’re mistaken and I’m righteous won’t get me the listing or the sale next time.

As often as not, when I do that, I find legitimate reasons why they didn’t choose me. It’s disappointing to face those things, but how else can I get better and thrive in my job?

In J. R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar, he wrote, “While I fear that we’re drawn to what abandons us, and to what seems most likely to abandon us, in the end I believe we’re defined by what embraces us.”

True, we are all a little like electricity – we follow the path of least resistance. It’s a lot easier, and less painful. Turning away from abandonment and running toward an embrace is comforting. But facing the abandonment, and its cause has to be done sooner or later, or we’re doomed to sing “I Will Survive” again sometime in the future, needing that comforting ointment of justification over and over.

Which led me to the other way to look at McCourt’s quote about resentment: You have work to do to make yourself different. Stop blaming the other person for at least a moment and look at yourself. The poison you drink resenting them rather than facing your part in the conflict will only make your journey of personal awareness harder. Or impossible. Or teach you the wrong lesson.

I’ve come to recognize that sometimes when it feels personal, when it feels like somebody did something intentionally to hurt me, they were simply disagreeing with my fantasy or my image of reality or my expectations about the future. Many of those fantasies, images and expectations were of my own making, and I projected them upon the other person largely by myself. When they didn’t live up to them, I blamed them, not me. Sometimes.

In Notes From Hampstead, Elias Canetti wrote, “Slumbering in every human being lies an infinity of possibilities, which one must not arouse in vain. For it is terrible when the whole man resonates with echoes and echoes, none becoming a real voice.”

We don’t want our shared possibilities to be vapor-like echoes, we want them to be solid. When somebody arouses those shared possibilities in vain – beware the impending resentment.

"Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

As freeing and transcendent as accepting that statement feels to anyone who has ever harbored resentment and felt it erode their own soul more than it ever hurt the target, I’m thinking there’s another step to take on the way to an even more useful understanding:

Accept that while you’re resenting someone else, they may very well be resenting you. And you both may have very valid reasons. And in doing so, you’ve both been drinking poison, waiting for each other to die, each feeling justified in your personal victimhood.

Yes, in relationships, there are at times true users and abusers, but more times than not I think there are two people who share blame for their mutual failures. But neither can force the other to face their failures, we each can only face our own.

That’s the surest antidote for the poison of resentment I can think of.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Thinking Small is Sometimes Good

Remember “McMansions,” those ever larger homes built with vinyl siding and plastic “woodwork,” set on huge lots. They defined the mad grab for huge square footage in the late ‘90s and early 2000s - lots of space with little quality. But the buyers I’m working with in my day job as a Realtor increasingly want something smaller than they might have chosen 5 years ago, and they want higher quality.

Historic Perspective
In 1950 the average square footage of the typical American home was less than half the size it is today. What’s more, then the average family included over 5 people. It is roughly half that today. So today we average twice as much house for half the people. Those families of 5 or 6 in the 1950s found one bathroom completely reasonable and thought little of having 2 or 3 boys share a single bedroom.

Today I rarely show houses to families that expect their children to share a bedroom. And anything less than 2 baths is considered a hardship.

Though few buyers today are ready to go back to the 1950s, a search for simplicity and a reaction against the housing gluttony of the turn of the 21st century seems to be have taken hold. I also find that recent economic hard times and relentless media stories about folks who overextended themselves has buyers thinking more cautiously, choosing houses safely within their means rather than stretching the wallet to get an extra 500 square feet, a home theater room, or that 3rd garage bay.

Seeking Financial Simplicity
I see a broad trend toward living more simply among my circle of friends and clients. That’s reinforced by what I read in the media. That clutching, grabbing, spending that was so much a part of our lives just a few years ago seems a bit much today. The shallow drive for more and bigger, for quantity over quality, has begun to feel a little like leisure suites from the 1970s or big hair on teen girls in the late ‘80s - makes us roll our eyes and wonder what we were thinking. But it’s not just fashion. Seeing so many people suffering now from the results of being out on a limb when the economy collapsed is sobering, even if you, yourself dodged the worst of the downturn. There is that humming, buzzing suggestion at the back of the mind that you might be the next to lose your job.

I think many of my clients also regret what acquiring all that house did to their lives. There was more to maintain - a huge yard to mow and tend, more gutters to clean, more toilets, sinks, and showers to clean and keep in working order.

A former student from my teaching days called from upstate New York a couple months ago and told me he was being transferred back to Indiana. I spent a day with his family looking at houses spread from Pendleton to Noblesville’s west side. They’re a couple in their early 30s, with two small children and are pre-qualified for homes priced well above $200,000 but were looking only at homes between $150,000 and $200,000, even though their job situation is secure. They’re looking forward to downsizing to live with more financial cushion and have money to do other things.

And during the boom years of ‘05 and ‘06 I found myself working with buyers and sellers on the leading edge of the baby boom generation, looking to downsize as their kids were grown and retirement approached. There’s an old, snarky real estate phrase: “Buyers are liars,” meaning they say they want one thing but buy something else. And my “downsizers” of those boom years did just that. When they saw what downsized square footage actually looked like, they often ended up buying the same square footage they were selling, with their only downsizing concession being to choose a one level ranch with no stairs to climb.

But not anymore. For the most part my retirement-age downsizers truly are downsizing, seeking less to maintain, less to clean, less to worry about, and more money in their pockets so they can visit grandchildren and have fun.

Seeking A More Self-Sufficient Lifestyle
Several other buyers in the past couple years have been looking for homes where they could plant a vegetable garden, can and store their food, run a home business, sew, do woodworking - whatever. There’s a little bit of a retro-hippie, back-to-the-land edge to these buyers. I have a particular soft spot in my heart for such folks because that kinda describes me.

These buyers might forego a newer subdivision for a more urban environment where they can walk to schools, parks, and shopping. They want a farmers market nearby, civic activities at hand, and a more economically and socially diverse community. Though Old Town Noblesville provides most of what’s on that list, I do know families who have left Hamilton County entirely and moved to downtown Indianapolis. Two young families I know in particular have no intention to move back to the suburbs. They have their urban gardens, mass transit busses, and private or charter schools. They love the concentrated excitement of the city.

Quality Over Quantity
Another national trend at play in this housing reassessment is a willingness to pay a little more for locally made and/or higher quality products, while generally consuming less. If you’re bothered by how we Americans buy cheap, foreign crap at Wal-Mart, sell it at garage sales a year later at pennies on the dollar, then go back and buy more cheap, foreign crap at Wal-Mart, then you have some sense of the ethic I’m talking about.

This thinking makes a McMansion with plastic woodwork, filled with furniture made of plywood and wood-grained cardboard less desirable than a house half the size, but with hardwood floors and granite countertops. It’s about downsizing on square footage and upscaling quality and durability.

The common thread running through these various home-buying motivations is about reducing consumption, living more simply and self-sufficiently, and pursuing more long-lived durability. It’s hard to know if this is a profound and lasting shift in cultural values or simply a shock reaction and adaptation to a big, lingering economic downturn. No matter which it is, these shifting home buying values create new opportunities and challenges for my buyers and sellers.