Moi, l’hypocrite

Posted on September 13, 2010


One thing that always infuriates me is that when someone tears down a perfectly good house (or building) in order to erect even a larger one. (A little lower on the infuriation scale is when someone tears down a perfectly good house because they do not want to maintain it anymore. But that’s for another post some other time down the line.) When I find out about someone knocking down a house to build another I will rail against the waste of wiping out a dwelling that is still structurally sound. Why not just add on? Why the constant urge to upsize? Want fries with that burger? Want a solarium and private bowling lane? All those McMansions founded on nice little houses…

Now I get to eat my rage and words. This weekend we spent emptying out our nice little cottage on the Connecticut coast. The propane gas tanks have been removed, cable TV and phone lines gone. The house is due to go off the power grid this week (possibly right at this moment) and the water and sewer connections will be severed by the end of the week. Built around 1950 and bought by my parents in 1969, this 700 square foot home will be reduced to tinder as soon as we have a building permit in hand for a new 2,000 square foot house.

We could have tried to retain the old house, but its foundation of 4 layers of cement blocks would not carry a 2.5-story house. We’d have to have the cottage jacked up and a proper foundation dug. The cost to do that greatly outweighed the cost to demolish the old. So I will be guilty of performing a sort of McMansioning here. That fact weighs heavily on my conscience.

But it’s not just being a hypocrite in this instance. And not just the guilt in causing a house that’s OK to vanish into the ether. The worse, or hardest part, is consigning to non-existence a place where I grew up. For me, the cottage is the sum of whomever inhabited it over its life — from my parents, to friends, my wife and my son, who has also grown up there and who is angry that his private second floor loft bedroom that I spent a summer building will be gone forever.

I’m not much on organized religion. In fact, organized religion is up there in my top 3 dislikes. I consider religion, and spirituality, something intensely personal and private. In my religious world, everything — whether sentient or inanimate — has a soul or a spirit or a mind of its own. Maybe I’ve never evolved beyond the superstitious phase, but everything in my mind has a mind of its own. That key I use to start my car. The sugar maples I tap every late winter out back. That cottage that will be no more in a few weeks…

That house is not just timber and nail and sheetrock; it’s alive. It’s everything — good and ill — that’s happened there. It’s going to give up its ghost, and all of the ghosts that have inhabited it, to give my son a good school system and a neighborhood full of kids to play with. Its death will bring us in closer proximity to family. Its new manifestation will bring us sweeping views of Long Island Sound when we sit down to talk, or dine, or write, or play. We all need to give up something to get something more. I’m just hoping what each of us in our small nucleus gives up will yield something greater, finer. Maybe that will be the atonement.

Postscript: In the meantime, this act and move yields other consequences. There’s the cost. We will need to sell our present house in Western Massachusetts to pay for the new — that in the worse house-selling climate since the Depression. The object, when all is said and done, is to be no more in debt that we are now. Anyone who has dealt with a builder knows things always cost more. Knowing that Social Security would fuel 90% of our retirement, the goal for this new house was to be totally energy self-sufficient, to keep our costs down while living on very fixed, and small, incomes. No such luck: in our climate geothermal heat could not totally heat a house, making it hard to justify its extra cost when conventional heating systems would also be need to be employed. Plus the cost of putting up enough solar photovoltaic panels to power the house would significantly raise our debt threshold. I need to think on reducing this debt (and risk).

So, over the course of this coming year, I need to reflect closely on Quale Press. I started the press in 1997 to publish projects I truly wanted to undertake (in addition to all of the publishing projects I work on for other publishers). Quale Press is my baby and labor of love. But it goes without saying (but here ’tis) that publishing literary work is not financially renumerative. Each book I publish costs roughly $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, plus there’s about $1,500 of my time (that I could have worked for someone else), and about $500 in overhead. So with 4 or 5 titles a year, that amounts to $12,000 to $15,000 of my own money that drives this press. If you want to figure in sales, that bottom line ends up at $10,000 to $13,000. Given the facts that there’s no miracle looming to increase sales, that our debt might blossom in building, that no one has the political gumption to end the income cap on Social Security contributions (which would make it more solvent), that college costs are not going to level off, and the recession has killed whatever college fund we have for our son, as well as our own 401ks, I am going to have to make some hard decisions on the fate of Quale Press in the next year or so.

I love putting together books that I believe in, and supporting writers I believe in, but belief in and of itself will not keep the wolf away from our door when I’m too frail to beat him away. Again, a measure of how much we will give up to get what we want…