In my Airstream, I knew where everything was. I knew everything we owned. There were few surprises lurking in the dark corners (except the occasional mouse turd). I could reach from my bed and touch my books, the front window, the cabinet containing my clothes, my scanner, and my wife — all without sitting up. Having such a small space bewilders those who have never lived in one, because they equate small with “uncomfortable” and “crowded.” In reality, a small space can be magnitudes more comfortable than a dramatic Great Room with vaulted ceiling. I know, we’ve lived in both.
A small space is a control-freak’s ultimate answer to housing. Everything is within reach, little is hidden, and complete mastery of the entire domain is easily achievable. You can be a big fish in a small pond.
But now we’re in a house, and it has galaxies of space, entire sectors that we don’t have a purpose for, and dozens of mystery boxes from our relocation last year still scattered around. It turns out that our biggest struggle now is to figure out what to do with all the extra space. We don’t want to buy furniture just to fill it up, but it seems so empty. Even a “zen” garden needs some gravel. Today we bought six chairs for the dining room table, so we don’t have to ask guests to bring their own. This sort of splurge is going to empty our bank account quickly if we aren’t careful, so for the most part we are furnishing like college students, with whatever is available.
Being in a house has provided us with endless entertaining novelties. Water just comes out from the sink endlessly — no worries about running the tank dry. I still can’t get used to that. Yesterday Eleanor was rinsing something in the sink and I had to repress the urge to say, “Hey, watch it — we’re not on full hookup!” Really. In my mind’s eye I could see the holding tank filling up.
The 25-cubic foot refrigerator is never full because it’s three times the size of the one we lived with for so long. The freezer that takes full size pizza boxes. That sort of thing tickles me. Whoo-hoo, frozen pizza! It’s the little things in suburbia that make it worthwhile. How can you not love a land where every kitchen has ice and water on the fridge door?
Ready-made ice is like a miracle. We never had room for ice in the Airstream, even the kind you make the old-fashioned way, in a tray. Now it comes out of the door on command, and at night we can hear the refrigerator industriously clanking as it deposits another load of ice in the bucket. Even though the unfamiliar sounds wakes us up, I find it bemusing. (After all the years of sleeping in Wal-Marts and near industrial areas, freight trains and street sweepers don’t wake me up, but ice cubes do.) We are still getting a kick out of putting a glass in the fridge door and getting endless cold water. I think we’ve all been drinking 20 glasses of water day just for the thrill.
In this way, we are like repatriated refugees. We haven’t had a dishwasher since 2005. Our wardrobe has been limited to what can fit in a plastic tub. High living in our book has been defined as the ability to take a shower longer than three minutes. So you can see why the concept of cable TV with 200 channels is too much to absorb. I’m afraid if we indulge in everything that suburbia has to offer, we’ll simply tip over from excessive pleasure, like the character in Crichton’s “Terminal Man.” It’s best to re-enter “normal” life slowly. We still don’t have a TV in the house, and I’m not sure when we are going to get one.
Today Eleanor found that her jar of Cain’s All-Natural Mayonnaise was running low. It’s a New England product, made in Massachusetts, and you can’t find it out west. In the old days we’d just get make a note to pick up some on the next trip east, but now we don’t know when that will be.
We’ve become accustomed to having most of the Lower 48 available to us. Back then, it went like this: “Remember that nice smoked fish we had at Ted Peter’s? Next time we’re in Tampa, we’ll get some more.” It was that simple. Hankering for a Czech pastry? No problem, we’ll be in Texas soon and we’ll stop at that nice pastry shop we know. Coffee milk? That’s easily found in Rhode Island and a few other New England states. Conch chowder in the Keys, authentic ingredients in Chinatown, crabcakes in Maryland, dry-rub barbecue in east Texas … it was all just somewhere down the road.
But now even little things like Cain’s Mayonnaise are off in a murky haze of possible futures. (Fortunately, we’re able to have that particular item delivered by friends from New England.) We’re used to sampling the world as we go, and roaming it as if it were our back yard.
So I am in a strange paradox: The house is too big, and the world is getting larger too. I feel I have taken a step backwards in the Maze, and I have gotten smaller relative to my surroundings, at least temporarily.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice. Now I finally know how she felt. I have to figure out how to start growing again. Alice did it by eating a bit of the mushroom. If only it were that easy to find your right place in the world.