Functional Specialization Seminars |

Comparing Two Houses by James Duffy

by robert.henman 8. February 2012 16:19

Comparing Two Houses

James Gerard Duffy


I'll light the fire
You put the flowers in the vase
That you bought today


The house I currently rent (HLP) is a two-story, three-bedroom, brick house with a large living room-dining room area, an open kitchen, and a two-car parking area.  There is internet, cable and a boiler on the back patio to heat water to fill the bath tub in the larger of the two bathrooms upstairs.  All three bedrooms are on the second floor, which makes it easier to keep personal, academic and work-related matters out of sight when it is time to host guests or watch a movie downstairs.  The master bedroom, which is my study, is the only room that receives direct sunlight. 


I see outside the window of the study crisscrossing power and telephone lines and the facades of other houses, each of them with one if not two water tanks on top of the roof.  On most mornings I hear the sounds of gas trucks because they use megaphones to play jingles to let everyone know they are around the corner (Here in Mexico you have to gas up your house every month or so).  Later I hear the bells of the guys who collect the garbage.  I also hear traffic from the nearby street and a few birds chirping. 


The neighbors are friendly folks, most of whom have lived here all their lives.  Gregorio, who lives in the house in front of me, is a retired high school teacher who paints still lives to keep sane.  Sometimes we walk together.  To the left (or right, depending where you stand) lives a family.  Both the mother and daughter are teachers.  The father rents tables, chairs, and accessories for parties.  They are down-to-earth folks who keep an eye on my place when I am out of town.


It is a ten-minute walk from HLP to the local shopping mall, where there is a cinema, a Wal-Mart, a Subway (the sandwich chain), a Blockbuster, a Home Depot, a bank, and various other stores.  I walk three minutes to buy tacos at night at my favorite sidewalk vendor.  The salsas and vegetables – sliced cucumbers, jicama, sliced onions and peppers – are “on the house,” so I order four or five tacos and load up on the freebies.


I pay $2800 pesos a month (about $220US) to rent HLP, and the owners are very dependable when it comes to fixing leaks or making other repairs.  My Mexican friends tell me that the minimalistic interior and the way the furniture is arranged are a dead giveaway that a “gringo” lives here.  I try to keep the house fairly organized, but at the moment it nearly a disaster area, especially the study – too many balls in the air this semester.  Does a man need a maid?   This man certainly does.


For the past few months I have been missing another house (HJM) that I rented for four years (2006-2010) on a decent plot of land nestled in a pine tree forest in the pueblo of Jesús del Monte (Jesus of the Mountain … when I told my older sister the name of the town, she thought that I had arrived!).  A friend of mine who used to rent a small cabin on the same plot of land, and who has since moved north to live in Torreon, says to me: “We had no idea just how good we had it.”


How good did we have it?  HJM was quieter, colder, and smaller than HLP – one bedroom, one bathroom and an open living room with a fireplace.  It was more of a cabin than a house.  With no indoor heating, I would light a fire in the cold winter months and curl up on the couch to sleep.  For some unknown reason, the power would go out from time to time, which meant lighting candles and going to bed early.  At night the wind could be heard whistling through the pines.  I would turn the porch light off and walk outside to see stars, too many too count. 


In the early morning I would hear sounds of roosters, later the sounds of cows and chickens.  Once a week I had to pump water from the cistern to the tank on top of the roof.   Every so often the cistern would run dry, which meant calling a truck to fill it up again.  I would deduct the cost from the rent, which did not set well with the owner.  Apparently somebody in the pueblo had control of the water, which was not a problem in the rainy season, when water was abundant.  The flow of water in Jesús del Monte would make an interesting case study.  Yep, “the good is concrete.”         


Saturday afternoons I would load up the back of my car with firewood.  I know that, outside a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  But a book together with a crackling fire is also special.  At times I would put flowers in a vase.  How good I had it living in a cabin surrounded by pine trees, walking down a dirt road to buy juice and eggs at the local “abarrotes” (corner grocery store).  The sights and cool breeze would remind me of Wrightwood, California, vacation destiny in the mountains of San Bernardino Mountains, Southern California when I was a younger lad.  Nowadays I do not see pine trees or stars; I see telephone lines and streetlamps.  There’s neon out the window, not the moon.    


Living in HJM was great fun while it lasted.  In 2007 the owners of the three cabins and the large plot of land built a kiosk with a grill to bar-b-q.  The kiosk is surrounded by grass, small plants and flowers with pine trees hovering overhead.  Eventually the owners would add a swing set, a tree house, and a trampoline – a veritable dream site for the children of friends who would visit.  Finally they built a small gymnasium for toddlers, and converted the cabins into a kindergarten; it was time for yours truly to move out.


It would take a bit of research for me to count the number of gatherings I hosted in HJM -– many birthday parties, New Year’s celebrations, and end-of-term gatherings with colleagues from the university.  Once I invited students to celebrate the end of the term with a good old potluck bar-b-q.  At night, after an afternoon of good eats and much laughter, we moved inside, where they took a liking to my fireplace and my liquor.  It was probably 3:00am when the last bottle of brandy was emptied and they decided to leave their professor in peace.  I used to pay $4000 (about $315US) to rent the cabin. 


How do I begin to compare HJM to HLP?  What would make for a good comparison?  Rent?  It is cheaper here in HLP, but that would have to be adjusted if I wanted to compare renting in 2012 to renting in 2006 -- an interesting, little homework assignment.  Square footage?  In terms of square footage, HLP is without a doubt the largest place I have ever lived.  Services?  If I pay water, telephone, and electric bills on time here in HLP, there is no problem.  I am glad that there is always water here and that I do not have to call for a truck in order to take a shower.  Not so in HJM.  Proximity to downtown and proximity to the university would be easy to calculate.  Fireplace?  Is there a way to compare HJM with fireplace-less HLP?  Are these parts of the house?  Was the smell of pine needles a part of HJM?  Is there a way to measure smells, for example of the flowers in the vase?  To compare smells?  What about dreams and REM sleep?  Is there a way to compare houses without me-ning meanings and val-you-ing values?  Perhaps I should have compared wines, not houses. 


Keep it simple: compare material to material (wood to brick), square footage to square footage, and average yearly temperature to average temperature.  But that does not sound right.  The sights, sounds, and smells are certainly part of a house, are they not?  Is a house a house if nobody lives there? 


What is a “house” anyway?   Is it a “thing”?  Is “dwelling” part of a house?  If so, what is “dwelling”?  (I have in mind Christian Norberg-Schulz.  Is he spontaneously in mind?  Best leave him and that tricky question aside … not part of the task.)  Are things like flowers in a vase part of a house?  Can a house also be a cabin?  In comparing HJM and HLP, am I comparing two things that are incommensurable?   


It is not easy comparing when I do not understand what I am comparing to what.  Perhaps understanding what’s “what?” would shed a bit of light on the heuristics of invisible houses and nudge me towards fantasizing spontaneous comparisons, when every movement and every word uttered on stage spontaneously results from the right life of imagination, when, then, the setting is magnificent, the lighting is superb, the costumes are gorgeous, and there is a play.

[1] “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  NB1 -- I am not “cheating” because I am “spontaneously” singing the song in the mirror, and you will notice other song lyrics “spontaneously” out-sung in my monologue.  NB2 -- Of course my horse, we are all “cheating”: spontaneity is way beyond our bruised and battered and unrecognizable selves.


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