Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I'm Not a Hoarder.....Really!

I’m not a hoarder- really. But I do save things. Important things. Tax returns, family photographs, correspondence with friends and relatives, souvenirs we’ve picked up on vacations, report cards, holiday newsletters….okay, I am a bit of a hoarder. Not the kind who would be featured on a reality television show. It’s not that bad. But now that we are packing up the house as we prepare to move, I am realizing just how much I’ve saved over the years and most importantly, what those items say to me and about me. 

When you have lived in one place as long as we have, packing to move is a trip down memory lane. As I wander from room to room, searching through closets, under beds, and in the dust-filled far reaches of cupboards, I find myself face to face with the early years of our marriage and family. In one closet, on a high shelf, a small box decorated with shelf paper is shoved under a pile of books. I open the box slowly, remembering before the lid is even off, what is inside. The scrap of fabric tucked inside is grimy and tattered. But I lift it to my face and inhale the scent of my twenty-two year old daughter’s beloved blanky and remember the two year old who couldn’t fall asleep without it. 

A box labeled “Tax Stuff ’07-‘08” turns out to contain tax returns and receipts as well as letters my now twenty-four year daughter sent from summer camp and college. Not sure why they are all mixed together in this one box, but pulling them out and reading them took me the better part of half an hour. Yes, I could have been using that time to do other things but the glimpse into a past I don’t always remember so well was a rare opportunity to travel back in time. Of course, it was also an opportunity to shred and toss papers dating all the way back to 1987. In this age of electronic tax returns and e-signatures on mortgage documents, it astounds me how much paperwork was generated not that many years ago. 

A smaller box with my son’s name scrawled across it turns out to contain flat stuffed animals (what happened to the stuffing inside I do not want to know) and some random raffle tickets. Yes, raffle tickets. He bought them with his own money and distributed them to us when he decided we were in need of back scratches, hugs, and help around the house. 

Another box yields photos and letters from the families I worked with through the years, both as a home daycare provider and an elementary school teacher. Each picture and hand-written note takes me back to friends who are now scattered around the country, but who will always hold a special place in my heart. 

My husband says we need to minimize. “It’s a good time to downsize,” he says every time he sees me packing. Never mind that the new house is actually bigger and has more storage space than this one. “That’s not the point,” he argues. “We don’t need all this stuff.” See, that’s what he doesn’t understand. It’s not just stuff.  I know, I know….. I’ve watched Hoarders myself. I am fully aware that I will have the memory of my daughter’s blanky even if that blanky isn’t here for me to touch and hold. But the fact that it is here means that on days when I am missing the beautiful twenty-three year old who lives three hours away, I can pull out a tangible reminder of who she used to be and curl up with my memories for just a little while.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How To Sell Your Home

When getting ready to put your house on the market there are some fundamental things you must know. First, you must understand that your personal taste in furnishings, decorating, and landscaping is lousy. Beyond lousy. Your taste stinks. And no one will ever want to purchase your home if it furnished, decorated, or landscaped with your personal touch. No, you must clear out all evidence that real live human beings actually live in your home, and pretend you are furnishing your home for an upscale hotel chain. Then, and only then, will you be able to find a buyer for your property.

Obviously you will need to hire experts to do this work for you. The first item on the agenda should be to hire a stager. A stager is a person whose job it is to walk around other people’s houses and criticize their furnishings, decorations and landscaping. If he succeeds in convincing you that you need his services, you will need to hire a large storage unit and a moving van. After you move out all your personal belongings, the stager can set your house up properly (so it looks like an upscale hotel chain). 

Your realtor might also recommend a landscaping crew. Their job is to come in and weed, prune, and/or destroy the yard you have lovingly cultivated over the years. If you are lucky, you will end up with a yard that looks like something from a gardening magazine. If you are not, you will have a bunch of mutilated shrubs, bushes and trees that resemble overgrown Hobbits. 

A cleaning crew is an indispensable part of this process. You must hire cleaners to mop the floors, clean the windows, scrub your baseboards, and get into all the nooks  and crannies that you haven’t touched in the past twenty years (or since you purchased the house). After the cleaning crew leaves, you will be expected to keep the house looking this nice. This means that every morning and/or evening you will need to vacuum, scrub counters, clean toilets, etc. If you have a full-time job, this will prove to be impossible. Your realtor will therefore want you to hire the cleaning crew to come back on a weekly basis until the house sells. 

Another important thing to remember is that pets are forbidden. Remember, most upscale hotel chains do not allow pets. If you have a pet, your realtor will encourage you to board said pet until the house sells. If this is not possible, you will need to remove all evidence that the pet exists. When you show the home, you will need to hide your pet’s food and water, bed, toys, blankets, and any other evidence that might indicate a four-legged creature lives in your abode. And of course, you must remove the pet from the property when potential buyers come to visit!

People who live in upscale hotel chains do not read books or newspapers, use toiletry products, eat, or have guests over. Therefore, neither will you. At least, not in your house, until it sells. 

Now that you are living in an antiseptic hotel-room-sort-of-house, it is time to ask yourself the all important question: Why exactly are we moving? Maybe, just maybe, the best strategy is to stay right where you are.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How To Buy a House

           House hunting is both exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. If you really want to stress yourself out, go through the process with your spouse or significant other. When couples talk about pre-marriage counseling I think they should just go house hunting together instead. Hit a bunch of open houses on the weekend and pretend you’re buying one. You’ll discover quickly whether this marriage is going to last or not. And it’s way cheaper than paying a therapist.

          My husband and I are in the process of looking for a new home. The last time we did this was twenty years ago and we are a little out of practice. For those of you just jumping into the real estate market, below are the top ten things to consider when searching for a new home.

1. The first (and most important) thing to do is decide on the price range of your new home. There are many factors that go into this decision. Your income, the price you can get when selling your old home, how much debt you currently have, whether or not you want to actually ever buy groceries again, and how willing you are to raid your child’s college fund.

2. Once you’ve agreed on how much you are willing to spend on a new home, it is time to prioritize your list of “must haves”. Make sure the list includes at least one item that will either add significant cost to the home or is almost impossible to find. For example: ocean view, updated kitchen with granite countertops, in-home theater or pool, built-in tanning salon, etc. Make sure at least one of you considers this item non-negotiable.

3. When you contact a realtor or agent, go over your list of “must haves” in detail. However, you must remember, the agent’s job is to sell homes. She doesn’t get paid until you actually purchase a house. And as much as you might enjoy spending every weekend touring open houses, your agent probably feels about this the way you feel about taking out the garbage. It’s something you have to do, but it’s probably not the high point of your week. So don’t be surprised when she starts showing you homes that are missing those essential requirements, especially if those “must haves” are things you could actually install yourself at a future date.

4. Know that looking for homes is sort of like computer dating. You’re going to get introduced to your dream home and then find out it’s being courted by other buyers, while the depressingly average home down the street can be yours for below market price if you desire. Of course, unlike dating, you probably should judge these books by their covers.

5. Now that you have an agent working for you, spend at least two hours a day browsing real estate listings so that you can email your agent links to all the homes you find and ask questions like: Do you think they’re serious about the price? or When do you think we can look at this one? When your agent points out that you are doing her job and by the way, these homes don’t actually meet your criteria, go ahead and change your list. If you do this often enough you will probably have to find a new agent.

6. When you do actually visit a home, ask your spouse to stand outside and inspect the roof. This involves staring critically at the roof while saying loudly, “I don’t like the look of those shingles.” Make sure the realtor is within earshot. You can also add, “Hmmm that looks like a patch job to me. Let’s look inside for leaks.” This is supposed to help when you negotiate the price, but I haven’t yet verified this.

7. Tell yourself over and over to ignore the cosmetic stuff because you can always replace things like paint and carpeting. Of course, what you are forgetting is that by the time you’re done buying this house you won’t have any money left to make those upgrades.

8. If you are buying a house with a significant other, realize that one of you will fall in love with each house you visit, and the other one will actively dislike it. This will not be a problem until one of you actually wants to make an offer on that house. Then it will be time for some serious negotiation (also known as bribing, compromising or veiled threats of bodily harm).

9. If you are lucky enough to both fall in love with the same house at the same time, congratulations! Remember, if you think it’s a great house, so do at least three other buyers. Act quickly! Throw all reason out the window as you and your agent prepare an offer. If someone else is making an offer at the same time, treat this like a high school love triangle. Tell yourself you will beat out all competition! Ignore the little voice in the back of your head telling you to be rational. This is no time for reason!

10. And finally, if your offer is the one chosen, spend at least three days indulging in buyer’s remorse. Was that black spot at the base of the closet door a stain or highly toxic mold? Maybe you hould have bought the two-story Craftsman down the street. Is it too late for you to back out and still get the earnest money returned?

          I have finally concluded that finding the perfect home is mostly a matter of luck and being in the right place at the right time. And if you can’t find the home you want, you can always stay put and spend the money on marriage counseling instead.

          Coming soon….essential tips for selling your current home (also known as, “Why are we sinking all this money into a house we’re getting rid of???”).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I Can't See (very well)

Something happens when you reach your forties. The print in books starts to shrink. The same thing happens to the print in menus, newspapers and magazines. The first time I noticed this,  I blamed the book. I adjusted my computer and Kindle so the font was huge. When reading magazines, I tried moving the page farther from my face but my arms didn’t reach that far. “You’re getting old,” my husband told me, kindly, as we sat in a local Olive Garden and he watched me move the menu back and forth.  
            “That’s ridiculous,” I said, handing him the menu. “Can you read me all the chicken dishes?”

            On the way home we stopped at the drugstore. I bought three pairs of reading glasses. Blue frames for home, tricolor for work, and a pink pair to keep in my purse for those pesky menus. I didn’t like them, but I got used to them. The problem was, I spend my days reading small print and at the same time supervising groups of children. I needed to be able to look at print and look out at the kids and see everything clearly. With the reading glasses on,  the print looked fine, but the kids were blurry. And removing and replacing the glasses all day was giving me a headache. 

            I called my eye doctor. “Time for bifocals,” he said. “Make an appointment.”
            I’ve been wearing contact lenses since I was fourteen years old. I was not going to wear glasses again, especially given my extra-strength prescription. “No bifocals,” I told him. “Don’t you make bifocal contacts?”

            He outlined my choices. I could wear one contact that would see far and one that would see near. Apparently your eyes learn to adjust so each eye knows what to do. I wasn’t sure my eyes were that smart. Or, for a great deal more money, I could order bifocal contact lenses. They’re weighted, so the lower part sees near and the upper part sees far and your eyes just figure it out. “Sounds perfect,” I said, and ordered a pair. 

            Two weeks later I drove home wearing my new contacts. I walked in the door and grabbed a book. A regular book, not my large-font Kindle. I could read it! I opened the newspaper and scanned the notoriously small-print comics. I could read them too! I was in heaven. The next day, however, driving to work, I realized I couldn’t see any street signs until I was practically sitting on them. Not so good. And three days later the new lens scratched my cornea. Back to the eye doctor.  We ordered a new pair with a slightly different prescription. Now I could see far, but when I tried to read a book I was back to reading glasses. “Don’t worry,” my doctor told me. “This is very typical. It usually takes several tries before we get it exactly right.”

            It’s been three months. I’m on pair number four. They’re still not perfect, but close. I can read menus, magazines and books. If I squint, I can almost read the comics. And my students and the street signs are in focus. Now, if I could just remember where I put my Kindle, I’d be fine.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Run Away Home

Exciting news! My young adult novel, Run Away Home, is now up on Kindle! 

Although I am still hoping to someday have it published and available in hard copy, I decided to take the plunge and put out a digital version. 

Run Away Home is the story of sixteen year old Alissa who has bounced between foster homes and her drug-addicted mother for years. When her brother, Trent, learns that their mom is about to be released from prison and wants them back, they decide upon a plan of action that will take them from Bakersfield to Seattle in search of the father neither of them remembers. Faced with the possibility of a future without her brother’s protection, Alissa is willing to do almost anything to avoid landing in her abusive mother’s care again. As they make their way north, Alissa knows that even one slip-up might mean the difference between finding a safe home or ending up back in the system. Frightening situations, new friends and unexpected betrayals force Alissa to grapple with the unintended consequences of her decisions and ultimately compel her to decide whether to blindly follow her brother or find a way to break the bonds of her past. Run Away Home is the captivating story of a teen girl’s search for belonging that stretches our understanding of what it means to be part of a family.

Tomorrow, 4/18/2012, this book will be available FREE for the Kindle! Let me know what you think!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Gift Certificate

Last spring I attended a school auction. You know…. the kind with tastefully displayed items spread out on tables with bid sheets attached. The “live” part of the auction featured items way out of my price range….vacation rentals, stadium box seats, and the ever popular, “Principal for a Day”. But the silent auction….well, there were a few things that caught my eye. I bid on a pretty necklace, a dinner for two at a local restaurant, and then I paused. The local humane society had donated a free pet. We didn’t actually need a new pet. But our Bichon Frise, Lucky, was fourteen years old and diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, arthritis, and cancer. We knew he had less than six months to live. And no one else had bid on this item. So, without over-thinking it, I signed my bid number and walked away. 

            Sure enough, I won. I tucked the gift certificate away in a drawer and forgot about it. Fast forward eight months. Lucky had passed away and my husband started making noises about getting another dog. I wasn’t super excited about the prospect now that I knew what life could be like without a dog in the house. No rushing home at the end of the day to let him out. No stuffing pills into foods designed to trick him into swallowing medicine without a fuss. No standing outside in the pouring rain or freezing snow, waiting for him to decide which location was best for doing his business. In short, I was enjoying life without the responsibility of a dog. But my husband doesn’t feel a house is a home without one. So eventually I capitulated. We were busy running errands when I said the fateful words, “Do you want to stop by the animal shelter?” 

            No answer needed; I turned right instead of left and within ten minutes we were pulling into the parking lot. “Now remember,” I said. “The gift certificate is at home. So we can’t actually buy a pet today. We’re just looking.”

            So we looked. We wandered up and down, past the cages holding one or two dogs. It was winter and the temperature was close to freezing. The kennels were heated, but just barely. My feet were cold and my hands felt like ice pops. Having recently said goodbye to our beloved nineteen pound Lucky, neither one of us wanted a large dog. Not to mention, we’d been spoiled by so many years of living with a dog that didn’t shed. Most of the dogs were large dogs and the rest were Chihuahuas. I hadn’t seen any that that really grabbed my attention, and I wandered away from my husband and back towards the main (heated) building where the cats were housed. “What about this one?” he called from the far end of the aisle. I walked back in his direction. Two small dogs lay huddled together in the last cage on the end. I pulled the description card from above the kennel and read it out loud. 

            “Louie. Eight years old. Yorkshire Terrier.” I looked down at the little dog and then at my husband. “He’s eight years old.”
            My husband nodded. “We wouldn’t have to worry about housebreaking him. Or racing home to let him out.”
            “Maybe not. But he’s old.”
“But look how cute he is. Come on, let’s at least take him out of the cage and see what he’s like.”
I went back to the building to get someone to help us, leaving my husband crouching next to the cage, trying unsuccessfully to get the dog’s attention. 

We took the five pound senior citizen to the play area where he crouched, shivering, on my husband’s lap and shook with either nerves or the cold. My husband covered him with his jacket and smiled hopefully at me.
“He has no fur,” I pointed out.
“But he’s wearing a sweater. It’ll be fine.”
“Oh, all right. We can go in and ask about him.” We relinquished the dog to the kennel attendant and went back inside the main building to wait our turn for processing. Once we were seated at the counter, the dark-haired shelter clerk pulled out a file that was at least half an inch thick. 

“Hmmm,” she said, paging through it. “You’ve picked an interesting one.”
I kicked my husband and scowled. He ignored me and the clerk began reading from the top sheet. “Let’s see. He was adopted from here three years ago and recently relinquished again. He has allergies and a skin condition, we just pulled sixteen teeth because of severe decay, he’s on medication and a special diet and both need to be continued.” I raised my eyebrows and sighed. Lucky all over again. “Oh, and it says here that he has bathroom issues.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Sounds like he’s not quite housebroken,” she said, not meeting my gaze. She handed the paperwork over to us. “Here, why don’t you look through this and I’ll give you a few minutes to talk it over,” she said, wisely moving away from us and handing the folder to my husband. I grabbed the folder and began thumbing through the pages that had been filled out by his previous owner. 

“He’s lived in three homes,” I said. “There must be a reason no one keeps him.” I kept reading down the form. Question #7 stopped me cold. What do you like best about the dog? The answer was scrawled rapidly in dark blue ink. Nothing.
My husband put his hand out and took the paperwork. He looked at me and I could see the familiar expression cross his face. It’s the look he gets when he knows he’s going to win an argument. “If we don’t take him, no one else will.”

I went back after work the next day. Gift certificate in my purse, laundry basket lined with a clean towel on the front seat next to me. Louie rode home with me, through the dark and cold of an early winter’s evening. We stopped at the local Petco to buy him a sweater and some toys. He promptly pooped on the floor. “You’re not off to a great start,” I told him sternly. He stared up at me, all dark eyes and perky ears, waiting to see what I would do. Sighing, I scooped him into my arms and carried him back out to the car to begin our journey home. 

Louie has lived with us for five months. He still needs a special diet and medicine that I hide in little pieces of chicken, and has weird bumpy things all over his back. But his fur comes in thicker every day, and he only rarely has accidents in the house. He has learned to ask to go outside and he sleeps snuggled up on our bed. On cold nights he burrows his way under the covers and presses against me, my very own hot water bottle. He follows me around the house and bites my ankles when I leave. Fortunately, with only three teeth, he can’t do much damage. What do I like about this dog? Everything.