Changing jobs has reminded me that there are lots of things I am not good at. I am obviously a good enough scholar to get another job, which is nice. I am also a good ordinary housekeeper: I cook (well); I do laundry (frequently); I cut the grass just often enough that we don’t have to make haystacks out of it afterwards; I would rather make the bed than not (and view a well-made bed as the key to an orderly frame of mind); I dash out to shovel snow before someone falls and sues the bejesus out of us; I manage to take (my) car in for regular maintenance; I get my teeth cleaned twice a year; and I occasionally whirl through my study and to put it into spic and span order after I complete the writing projects that cause it turn into a Salvation Army bargain bin.
But here is what I am not good at.
Filling out forms. Tax forms for the new job were the most difficult. When I set myself to the task almost two months ago, I had two impulses: one was to ship them off to my accountant immediately and the other was to join my local Tea Party chapter and lobby for the flat tax. OK, I don’t really believe in the flat tax. And I’m sure that once we got over our mutual frustration about the complexity of the tax system and moved onto other topics, like where Barack Obama was born, my new Tea Party friends would stop liking me. But, like many conservatives, I also don’t understand why filling out withholding forms has to be so frigging complex that someone with twelve years of higher education can’t do it. I tried to do New York State by myself and ended up — after I was done with the worksheet — with eight deductions. I thought, “This can’t be right.” And of course, when I caved and faxed everything to my accountant who thought eight deductions was just hilarious, it wasn’t right. That was also when I realized that I actually had not filled out any of these forms in over twenty years and in the interim the tax system has become exponentially more complex and hideous. No wonder Mittens Romney won’t release his returns: he’s probably embarrassed about all the wite-out.
Similarly, filling out all the other forms that get you signed up for the privileges of full-time labor is incredibly anxiety provoking. What if you do it wrong and get hit by a bus on February 1 and you don’t have health care after all? Or what if there’s a catch? (The Zenith health insurance carrier isn’t very good, but at least I am used to their incompetence and wise to their tricks.) Some of these forms rely on some other form being filled out right to go into effect themselves. The number of forms was also far greater than I thought it would be because my new job actually has better benefits than my old job, and delivery has been outsourced in all these super efficient ways (that require more forms at the beginning, then hopefully I will die before I need to get another job and I won’t have to do this again.)
Fortunately, right before I was about to choose my health plan by whispering “eerie, meenie, miney, moe…” a good friend of mine who works in the health insurance industry called to walk me through it. Thank the goddess.
Selling houses. I didn’t know that I wasn’t good at this because the only times I have done this unpleasant task were in go-go real estate markets where all you had to do was think about selling your house and someone bought it. Before Bank of America and Countrywide destroyed our lives, selling a house went like this: you met with the real estate agent, you cleaned your house very thoroughly, the agent brought between one and six clients in to see it the next day, and then they called you that evening and said “Guess what?!?!? There was a bidding war for your house and we got above asking price!” Hopefully by then you too had somewhere else to live.
Not so now. Real estate agents, who are some of the most upbeat people in the world are at orange alert. Two have told me that last year was the worst real estate market in ten years. What happened ten years ago? That’s right. It’s the worst real estate market since 9/11.
For those of us who are not under water on our mortgages, the good news is that people are starting to buy houses, and if you live in a university town there is a fair amount of turnover every year. But the trick is that banks have gone from lending people too much money to not lending them enough, or just blowing them off completely. I know someone out in the Bay Area who has had four different buyers and not one closing because the prospective homeowners, fine citizens all, couldn’t get a mortgage at all.
To get to the part I am really not good at, the crummy market also means that you have to be nicer to buyers and do enticing things to make them like your house better than the 4,000 other houses for sale in the immediate vicinity. For example, we have purchased a set of towels that are exclusively for house showings. That’s right. Don’t even try to use ‘em if you come to my house. They are for looking only.
As I was getting ready for our first showing today I realized that it will be a longer and more difficult campaign than we are used to. Many people will troop through on short notice, regardless of what else we have to do. Techniques will need to be developed to make it possible to get the house ready to show in the time it takes Superman to leap into a phone booth and change. Here are the things I discovered:
You can’t stuff everything in the closets. Buyers won’t necessarily go in the closets, but if they do, you risk that Fibber McGee moment where skis, tennis rackets, the dog’s chair, six book bags, a plastic bag of sedatives saved for special occasions and the pile of New Yorker magazines you haven’t read yet come sliding out. Worst case scenario, you are charged with felony assault on the buyer. But even if s/he isn’t harmed, s/he also will not understand what unbelievably spacious closets you have.
It’s probably a good idea to put the pornography permanently under cover. My pornography is from the seventies, and I own it (thank you very much) because I am writing a book on pornography. I’m sorry to say I left today and only later realized that copies of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were in the bookshelf, not to mention countless books about pornography that have the words “pornography,” “sex,” “anal” and “fetish” on the spine — among other things. Worst case scenario? Your buyers are repelled and cannot imagine living in your house. I understand this, because I feel exactly the same way about decorative straw wreaths, Hummel figurines, framed silhouettes of your children and household items made from lovingly saved wine corks. Best case scenario? Your buyers are queer, think that your house has exactly the right vibe, and buy the house on the condition that that the Marilyn Chambers poster stays.
It’s wise to look around for dead things. There was, for example, a dead bird frozen to the upstairs porch that I never would have thought to look for, and that I had to remove with boiling water. We have big picture windows upstairs which is nice for us, but deceptive for the birds. I saw the corpse completely by accident as I was opening a blind to let our prospective buyer see what lovely southern light comes in to the master bath. This prompted me to patrol the outside of the house where I located other dead items, left by local cats who treat our yard like a Cat Game Park. Worst case scenario? Your buyer brings a small child who bursts into hysterical tears and has to be hustled away before they see how great the basement looks now that all the junk is gone and it is painted! Best case scenario? Your buyer is John Waters and he puts in a bid after finding the first dead bird.
Put all loose $hit away and empty all trash and recycling containers. Knick knacks, files, change dishes, tooth brushes, dry cleaning, bowls of fruit, pet bowls, pictures of your relatives, anything you think is funny, all of it. All of it! Out of superstition, I even replaced the framed yoga meditation in the bathroom with a little fake Chagall that was slated for the Good Will. Now I’m keeping the pseudo-Chagall, at least until we sell the house. I thought, “What if the people who see our house are evangelicals, or super-orthodox Jews, or Mormons, and they see this yoga meditation and think the devil lives here?” You’ve got to use your head, that’s what I say.
But the question is, what do you do with that crap? I’m going to be better prepared next time for sure, but this was a real scramble. Fortunately I had a bunch of plastic boxes where I just dumped stuff indiscriminately and slid them neatly under desks and tables. Any object that was on a piece of furniture that had a drawer — there you go! The dry-cleaning? Took it to the dry cleaner! But then there was still stuff, and I was running out of time. Normally you would put all that cr^p in the basement, but the basement has to remain uncluttered so that people can imagine their ping-pong table will go there. Suddenly a light went off. I put everything else:
- In the washer and dryer. These are two highly underutilized spaces anyway. Down side to this? On the off-chance that someone opens the dryer, they will think it doesn’t work and that you are a hoarder. Up side? Maybe they will put your name in for one of those teevee shows where a team of cheerful people in comes and does everything for you while the neighbors cheer and clap!
- The car. I realized this as I was taking out the piles of dry cleaning I never take in: we have two cars, which means two car trunks! Eureka! So that’s where everything else went.
This has taught me a lesson, however. From now on, every room will have an attractive, moderately sized box from Pier One with a house fern on it. When it looks like we are having a showing, everything in each room goes into the box, the fern goes back on top and — Ta-da!
The problem with all of this is as soon as I get good at it, it will be a useless skill set. Because you know what? When we move to Metropolis, we are going to rent.