Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hurricane Hole

I suppose I'm not the only one who’s had inhibitions about making nail holes in the walls of a place I own. In previous apartments, I felt rather free to hang pictures and other décor on the walls, but now that I own a condo, it took me fully ten weeks to work up the will to puncture the paint. And then I re-used six nail holes from the previous owner!

This time last year I didn't even imagine owning a place of my own. I was happily ensconced in a two-bedroom apartment in a singularly well-located, congenial and affordable complex only three miles from the library where I work. Unfortunately, late last year the residents got word that developers wanted to buy the complex. In Houston that is a death knell for any extant building. As it happened, the development deal fell apart when the economy did, but the handwriting was on the wall and it was quite legible.

Finding a new place to live was a convoluted process. I looked at comparable rental properties. All of them were either more expensive or less well located or both. Then I entertained the possibility of buying a house. I would have loved a cute little house – but there were none of those to be had close in without paying bucks deluxe or committing to a fixer-upper in a shaky part of town. Townhomes? Either pricey or in questionable condition. Houston saw a boom of quick, inexpensive townhome construction in the boom days of the 1970's. Now a lot of those places – cheaply built to start with, and not carefully maintained over the years either – are NOT what smart money buys. As my buyer's home inspector said, "They have a half-life and it shows."

That left condos. My Realtors showed me a slew of condos and I started warming up to the idea, but with reservations. All along I wanted a place near work, but out in the country. Also, near an airport, or near the water (lake, bayou, or sea), but did I mention, near work? Oh, and I wanted a roomy kind of castle, and I wanted a place low-maintenance enough to let me travel freely and affordable enough that my life wouldn't be wrapped around stretching to make the mortgage payment every month. (2009 would have been a singularly bad year to commit the kind of errors in judgment that led to the mortgage-default fiasco in the first place!) I wanted a light, airy place with a lot of windows. I wanted a place well sheltered in the event of another hurricane: Ike in 2008 sent Houston reeling, and Ike wasn't even the baddest of the hurricane breed.

So I wanted this and that and the other, and about half of the list cancelled the other half out.

Finally I had an Aha! moment and settled on a pleasant condo in the Rice-University/Medical Center area. It's a one-bedroom place, but the bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom are generously sized, and I've commandeered the entire living room for my study. In the future I may look into having another housing option in addition to this, not instead of it. There's always travel. A well-managed condominium community makes it easy to turn the key in the lock and leave without a care. Perhaps I'll someday buy a bit of property way out in the country or contrive a crash pad near an airport. Or even own a shack near the sea. Writers do love to relocate for a season (or just a weekend) and it's even better if the getaway is far away from the usual distractions of city life.

If I ever have a shack by the sea, I'll furnish it with secondhand stuff, and the next time a hurricane coils in from the Gulf of Mexico, I'll wish the place luck and run for the safety of my in-town place. The condo is my hurricane hole.

Friends from Miami introduced me to the idea of a hurricane hole: a sheltered place to tuck your boat, airplane or other property in a hurricane. That works for me. Not just in the event of literal hurricanes, either. Here on the trailing edge of 2009, it's not obvious that we're out of the financial hurricane. I can well imagine economic woe, energy crisis, pandemic, and such yet to come. Calamities can be personal, like a downturn in health, a marriage or partnership that falters, and so on. I finally decided that owning a secure, affordable, centrally located, one-bedroom condo will make sense (and maybe even appreciate in dollar value) for decades. Now that I'm living here, my stress level has dropped and the amount of good sleep I get at night has gone up. For that, I credit moving into a hurricane hole.

It's an exceptionally nice hurricane hole, too. As of yesterday, it's got décor on the walls. Not long ago I saw a newspaper article about research showing that people felt more at home after a move when their paintings were hung on the walls. I didn't quite believe it, except maybe when people move into a new place without many belongings. Then of course paintings gracing the walls would help a lot. When somebody like me moves lock, stock, and barrel, with plenty of furniture and hundreds of books, you wouldn't think wall décor would make much difference. But, magically, it did.

A couple of hours of pondering and tapping tentative nails and hangers, and my place is appreciably more congenial even though my most prized paintings (the original art for two stories published in Analog magazine) are still stowed away in a box. What I put on the walls was just pretty stuff of sentimental value, as were the suncatchers hung up in a window and dangling from two hall light sconces. Very ordinary yet comforting. Need is a funny thing. Do I need a cute garden cottage or an airy palace in which to live? Evidently not. A hurricane hole, complete with items of décor that are my familiar friends – yes: that’s just what I need. Especially right now, in the fall of 2009. Our recently calmer, clearer economy may be the trailing edge of the hurricane . . . but for all we know it's just the eye of the economic storm.

No comments: