JUNE 20, 2011
FOR MANY YEARS, THE GOOGLE EARTH map of Escalada Terrace in Los Angeles included an aerial shot of a small house with an old mattress in the yard. This is LA Times columnist Meghan Daum’s house, and in her wise and funny memoir she recounts the nineteen moves, fourteen roommates, two dogs, and the one, possibly two, live-in boyfriends who lead her — and her mattress — to it. “Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: ‘Life would be perfect if I lived in that house,'” Daum begins, thus launching a recounting of what is truly an absurd number of moves over the past fifteen years. This story of “a very imperfect life lived among very imperfect houses,” she declares, is written in homage to the wistful yearnings that have fueled her “lifelong game of house.”
Daum’s relentless search is an inherited one, she says, and can be traced back to her parents and their preoccupation with shedding the residue of their humble, coal-mining-town origins. But moving up in the world, as it turns out, means moving around, and with Daum in tow, they travel from Palo Alto, California, to Chicago, Illinois, to Austin, Texas, and then to Ridgewood, New Jersey. Even once they’ve settled in New Jersey, weekends are spent attending open houses.
Predictably, Daum absorbs her parents’ “perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination point of a moving van.” Once she hits college, she’s out the gate. After staying put in the same dorm room for the entirety of her freshman year at Vassar (she was told she had Meryl Streep’s old room), she goes on to move once every semester, from different dorm rooms, to off-campus housing, to New York City. She moves so many times that she stops dismantling her speakers from her stereo. By the time she graduates, she’s lived in ten different places, managing “to major in English but also to minor in moving.”
All the moving, she surmises, was part of her quest for “domestic integrity” — i.e., a desire “to not feel like an impostor in your home and, therefore, in your life.” She briefly finds domestic bliss in a prewar apartment in New York City, on 100th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The shabby-chic three bedroom, bursting with books and decorated with hand-me-down furniture and oriental rugs, offers Daum the bohemian lifestyle she’d been seeking in college. But things turn sour when a new roommate moves in and promptly destroys the flat’s Woody Allen vibe. Said roommate’s crime: covering the charming hardwood floors in his room with baby blue carpeting. The punishment, as Daum shamefully admits: eviction.
With her beloved prewar tarnished by guilt, Daum moves first to a one-bedroom sublet on West 86th, and then, of all places, to Lincoln, Nebraska. To this day, she finds the move to Lincoln a bit of an “enigma,” particularly given that she’d been there only once, on a writing assignment. Then again, Daum had harbored childhood fantasies of being Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. Plus, it’s hard for a debt-ridden freelance writer to survive in NYC. And so, in “an actual little house on the actual prairie,” she manages to spend the next several years relaxing in the countryside while writing a novel about a girl who moves to the Midwest. “For the first time ever, people around me were simply living their lives rather than pulling themselves up,” she recalls, succinctly capturing the contrast between the Midwest and the city.
Naturally, wanderlust soon sets in, and Daum decides to head to LA, where many of her friends have migrated. Los Angeles, she finds, is the Baby Bear’s porridge of cities — “not too cold, not too hot, but rather, a study in the unsung pleasures of lukewarm.” The problem is, Daum still isn’t sure just what “just right” should look like, and upon moving, she finds herself yearning, predictably, for Nebraska. Idealistically, she toys with the idea that she could live in both LA and Lincoln, commuting between the two. She even goes so far as to put in an offer on a farmhouse whose main attraction is its beautiful wood flooring. But, days before closing, she backs out, confronting the reality that “you cannot be the down-home farm girl and the queen of lower Fifth Avenue at the same time… You cannot be Dorothy Parker and also Willa Cather.” Daum’s inability to settle down might be obnoxious were it not for such instances of self-awareness.
Yielding to the Carrie Bradshaw in her, Daum commits to LA, and here’s where the book ventures into the timely news hook upon which it’s pegged: the real estate bubble. The year is 2004 and Daum is renting a farmhouse in Silver Lake. When her fantasies of renovating the rental are crushed by the $1 million price tag her landlord puts on the property, the desire for a house she can call her own turns into a bona fide “brainsickness” that is fed by House Hunters, Trading Spaces, and other “house porn.” Like many across the country, Daum calls a realtor and embarks on the hunt for a decent house that falls within her price range. After all, as she later observes, “a rental is the housing equivalent of, if not a one-night stand, the kind of relationship where introductions are made to friends but not to parents.”
Relationships — and her complicated feelings about them — play a major part in Daum’s house-lust. Part of the reason she moves to the Silver Lake farmhouse is to prepare for a second date with a man she believes will be able to see her “true essence” only if she’s living in her own place and not a sublet. When writing about houses — her search for them, her love for them — she often slips into relationship-speak. Finally bidding on a house, Daum tells her mom that she’s in escrow, describing her tone as that of someone saying, “I’m engaged,” or, “I’m pregnant.” She wonders if owning the house will put her “most authentic self into such high relief” that it will result in an engagement ring. She hopes the house looks “sexy” on her. If at first it seems silly, you can’t help sympathizing with her when she signs the papers and half the signature lines in the contract read, “Meghan Daum, an unmarried woman.”
It turns out that her dream house — which she’d only seen the inside of once and for roughly five minutes — is a bit of a fixer-upper. This doesn’t dissuade Daum. In fact, the more problems she finds, the more she rejoices, semi-believing that her purchase of a house in need of so much work shows pioneering pluck and feminist independence. Hearkening back to her Nebraska days, she imagines people saying, “She may not have a farm, but she’s still got a little Willa Cather in her.”
“Despite certain Muzak-sounding catchphrases of the real estate world — ‘home buyer,’ ‘home sales,’ ‘home loans’ — the words ‘house’ and ‘home’ are not interchangeable,” Daum discovers. And perhaps as a result, she finds it challenging to stay put, especially when another guy (she renovates her kitchen before showing her house to this one) enters the picture. Somewhat abruptly, the book concludes with the “to move/not to move” question left hanging. It’s hard not to want a fairy tale ending after watching Daum unpack and repack her belongings so many times. Then again, what she’s been seeking isn’t the perfect space, but rather a place — both physical and emotional — where she feels completely herself. The search for home, paired as it is with Daum’s thoughtful and apt observations about the restlessness that fueled her is what elevates the book above the standard “isn’t my life wacky/amazing/difficult” fare that’s customarily trotted out as memoir. Daum may have fashioned herself after Laura Ingalls Wilder, but what she learns is the tidy, but no less relevant lesson of another farm-girl icon: Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz. Only when one has stopped looking beyond the rainbow — or the moving van — can one settle down and say to oneself, “There’s no place like home.”