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Are you a nester? - #42
Upgrades in hovels.
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It was 2012, and I was working in an ad agency in Boulder, CO, one year shy of being transferred to LA. One of my coworkers, someone who I would later warp myself to date and then be heartbroken by, told me it looked like I went to my closet every morning and picked out a new personality.
And in some ways, that was true. There is evidence.
Historically, I have had a pretty malleable existence. I pick up accents quickly. I do very good impressions. I code switch with ease. My best friend once said one of the things she likes most about me is that she can invite me to anything and she knows I’ll say yes. Doesn’t matter if it’s a rave, a local policy hearing, or a mozzarella class. I like new people and new experiences and I like assimilating into them and then slingshotting into something else. And I especially liked moving.
Until I went to therapy.
My therapist once asked me why I thought I moved so much. I said because I liked it. She said, “not because when you stick around you actually have to make an effort and let people get to know you and maybe get a little more hurt than you planned?”
What a therapist thing to say.
But she was right. And so while I saw her in LA, I learned how to be a person and in turn, how to be myself. Without convenient ways to reinvent my entire identity, I had to sit there and figure out what my identity actually was. The Tree House helped me do that.
In March of 2017, Ben and I had a health insurance wedding. We were living in the Spider Box, and he’d proposed six months earlier on Tenerife. I think he said something like, “you know I’m a serious person, and I’m serious about you,” and I laughed.
The Spider Box was 400 square feet and I didn’t love the idea of being married there. Marriage felt like having your own adulthood notarized. It meant you needed to have matching towels, laundry machines, and ceramic dishware. I’d struggled to ever picture myself as a married person in general, but picturing being someone’s wife in that run down shack seemed ridiculous. So I went to Craigslist for a solution.
Solutions, however, don’t come cheap. At this point, the company Ben had worked for had folded, and he’d asked me if I would support his dream of pro-cycling in turn for him supporting my own dream to be a writer in the future. I went from paying my half of the rent, $800, to paying all of it, $1600, to looking for a place for us to live as dignified non-spider-dwelling members of society. But everything for rent was $3000 and up, well beyond our means. It was merely a sprint to an identity I couldn’t afford.
Then, Barry made us an offer.
The Spider Box is situated on a corner cliff lot in Topanga Canyon. It shares that lot with two other homes: the Dome and the Tree House. Barry is the landlord for all three. When we were living in the Spider Box, Barry lived in the Dome, and another tenant, Darren*, lived in the Tree House. Darren wasn’t well. We could occasionally hear him screaming in the night, and when he would venture outside, he would cover every part of his body, attributing it to his allergy to the sun. He had a dog we only ever saw outside twice. He had a girlfriend who left. And when she left, he stopped paying rent.
The Tree House is situated on the cliff just above the Dome. Every house on the property was ramshackled together, but the Tree House was the oldest. It was built in the 1920s as a hunting cabin, nestled (now illegally) among several old oak trees. The Dome and the Tree House shared a driveway and an outside staircase that connected them. The Dome was arguably the worst kept, but inarguably the coolest. On the lowest part of the cliff, the Dome had the most erosion built up around it, slowly tucking it deeper and deeper into the slope. The main room of the Dome was made from an inverted skateboarding bowl Barry had picked up at an auction. Small rooms poked out of it like spider legs, and Barry had filled it with all his treasures from decades of being a working jazz musician. We’d visited the Dome many times, but we’d never seen the Tree House. Until Barry was finally able to evict Darren.
The offer was this: Barry’s knees couldn’t take all the uneven, slippery stairs down to the Dome anymore. He wanted to move into the Spider Box, and he wanted us to move into the Tree House. It was right after we married, and after I negotiated him down to $1900 a month, that we decided to move in.
Walking into the Tree House was jarring, but it was worse for Barry. He hadn’t seen inside it for years, and Darren’s mark had been made. The ceiling and windows were all covered with stapled up trash bags, there was duct tape over every visible nailhead, and there were long scratches at the base of every door from the dog we never saw. Cooper wouldn’t go inside.
Several deep cleans, floor sanders, and sage sticks later, it looked like this.
Not exactly the marital haven I was picturing, but it was 600 square feet and I was excited to live in a house that didn’t have carpet older than I was. I moved everything from one house to the other by myself, save for two gentlemen from Task Rabbit who were so frightened by the houses after moving the dresser that they gave up halfway through moving the bed. Everything else, I did myself. Ben was racing, and we had a deadline of when we needed to hand the Spider Box over to Barry.
The Tree House would be our first real place together. Prior to that, I just lived in Ben’s house with Ben’s things because Ben cared about his things. All I had was some Target silverware, my bikes, and whatever handful of personalities had fit in two suitcases. My therapist told me to try nesting — to stop living as if I would leave and start living as if I would stay. If I had to nest, I was going to build a great fucking nest.
Or at least that was the plan until I learned how much a couch costs.
Recently, I was listening to a podcast called Are You Garbage? It’s hosted by two comedians generally interviewing other comedians to find out if they are garbage, or more specifically, if they grew up as garbage. I don’t think you can listen to this podcast without also interviewing yourself. And after a few episodes, it was pretty clear: I am garbage. I clean stuff with spit. When I could drive myself to school, I would often go to McDonald’s beforehand to get a hash brown and a large triple thick chocolate shake — for breakfast. My favorite snack as a kid was bologna and cheese, but more specifically microwaving the bologna until it curled into a bowl, then microwaving it again with a piece of Kraft singles in the middle, turning it into cheese soup in a meat bowl. I went to parties in cornfields, compared sound systems in TGIFriday’s parking lots, and worked at a Dairy Queen. There’s a reason Ben’s nickname for me is Trash Goblin.
On a recent episode, the guest was recounting the first time he had to buy a new couch with his girlfriend. They went to a furniture store, and he told the salesperson he was looking for a couch.
“Is there a price range you’d like to stick to?” he asked.
“I don’t know — 3? 400 bucks?” the comedian replied.
The salesperson and the girlfriend both looked at him — the salesperson confused, the girlfriend some combination of bemused and irritated. He learned his lesson. And so would I: couches are thousands of dollars.
A couch is the perfect time to consider cost per use. So if you were like, “hey Kelton, what would you pay, per sitting, to sit on a nice couch instead of the floor?” The first thing I would think is a dollar and then I’d lower it because I’m cheap. “50 cents, I guess.” And then ask yourself, “hey if you bought a couch, like a new one, ideally how long would you have it?” Let’s say ten years. So that’s, 3650 days, minus like 50 you’re not home, and you’re probably sitting on the couch twice a day, and at my rate of 50cents, that means I should be willing to spend $3600 on a couch.
When I process money this way, it’s easier for prices to make some semblance of sense.
In the end, I spent $1900 on a couch. At least some parts of my identity were consistent. Slowly but surely, I replaced, repaired, replenished, until it looked like this.
Nesting in modern nomenclature means making a home, settling down, but it comes from birds. They’re building a nest to protect their future young from predators and competitors. Birds use all kinds of stuff to build their nests, but my favorite is how hummingbirds use spider silk to weave between the twigs and fibers. Each bird chooses their location and materials based on what works best for their species (and what’s available to them.)
When I think of myself as a species, my traits are plain to see. Likes to nest high — wants to scan the horizon from their perch. Has been spotted in urban environments but sightings are increasingly rare. Can often be found in very wooded areas. Comfortable in harsh environments, but migrates for 1-2 weeks per year to the tropics. Prefers a nest with compartmentalized spaces, prone to hiding. Many calls. Can be heard singing even when no other birds are present.
That nest was perfect, but we didn’t own it, and we couldn’t. The estimated value of that property is 1.1 million, turning our nest into someone else’s nest egg. Barry had bought it in 1977 for $57,000 and cobbled it together himself. As much as he wanted to “keep Topanga Topanga” he wasn’t ready to part with it, and certainly not ready to part with it at half the value. But nesting had done its work: I was more settled than I’d ever been, both in location and self. I embraced my dualities: I loved camping and dance clubs, flannel and tropical prints, karaoke and quiet nights writing. I could be all these things, climbing the uneven steps in my 4-inch heels.
The Tree House had its own dualities after all: utterly charming with rotting wood, warm and cozy and full of rats, completely ours and yet, not at all. We would live there for four wonderful years, begging for increasingly hesitant pet sitters, before moving to Colorado. But the Tree House settled certain things for us: we needed wood, views, and plants. We wanted a wood-burning fireplace, in-house laundry, and a safe place for the animals to relax in the fresh air.
I often joke when referring to my past that I “goldilocksed” North America, trying Ohio, Idaho, North Carolina, the Caribbean, New York City, DC, Boulder, Santa Monica, and Topanga before finally rooting, but I goldilocksed more than that: partners, styles, jobs, and whole personas. When Covid sent us into lockdown, and I was stuck inside one house with one person with nothing to do but hike and bike, a previous me would have shuddered, but I shrugged. Our nest was rich with color and joy and everything we needed to survive.
I called in for my weekly therapy via Zoom for the first time, the world holding its breath.
“How are you doing with everything?” she asked
“Good, I guess? … Want a tour of the house?”
As I walked the laptop around the Tree House, I could see on the screen my therapist was smiling. After years of flight, crashing in sail bags, stairwells, old women’s guest rooms, and whatever nests I could find along the way, it turned out I was pretty good at nesting. Especially when I realized it’s cheaper to change pillows than it is to change wardrobes.
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