Real Estate, Oy!

Western Washington Forest

Bill and I were in our car recently, driving to some event or other when my cell phone rang. It was our landlord calling to tell us that Norman and Amanda’s house, and more importantly the nine acres that went with it, were going on the market the following week. “It will probably take at least a year to close,” he added reassuringly.

It was nice that he warned us because a day or two later, I was working in my office when Bill yelled, “There’s a drone flying over our house!” Needless to say, he ran out and investigated. He found a young photographer using the drone to take pictures of the land and also taking pictures from the ground. (Well-paid work if you can get it, Bill also learned.)

A few days later, one of those huge two-sides-of-a-triangle signs appeared on the road by our property though nowhere near the driveway itself. I’d been a bit concerned about people knocking on the door but I needn’t have worried. No one would pay $2.15 million to live in this house, and indeed the sign advertises us as a “residential plat” with 9.33 acres. Welcome to the wacky, fun-filled world of Western Washington real estate.

We had every reason to know this was coming. Development is crawling up the road at us, swallowing up the old farms and farmhouses turning them into series of depressing beige boxes with no yards and spindly trees. The development that comes up to two houses south of us was offering 54 of these for $400,000 to $600,000 each, and they’re all or nearly all sold. It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy real estate market out there. The house next door to us is next, with its five acres, already permitted and sold, with the tenants on a month-to-month lease. We always knew this house would be next.

And so, we started looking around at real estate. But it’s a crazy, crazy market. The Venn diagram of houses that we like and houses we can afford is a very small overlap indeed. A few weeks ago, we tried to go to an open house at a house in the woods we’d visited a couple of times. It was much of what we’d wanted in a house, in the woods, with nearly five acres, a fairly nice house, a deck, and the trunks of primordially huge trees with the notches still in them from when loggers a century ago put planks a yard or two up the trunk and stood on them so as to cut across the trunk at a thinner spot than near the ground. It turns out that if you do it that way, the tree will regrow and that place was full of these old monsters that had regrown in various ways. It was magical, although the house was boringly generic. But it was only the second house we’d toured and it seemed to soon to make an offer. Which anyhow we might not have been able to make without a pre-approval letter that I hadn’t yet gotten from a lender.

So, I decided, I’d put the pre-approval in process and we would go to the open house and make a final decision as to whether to bid. No smart seller in this seller’s market, I reasoned, would sell the house days before an open house–you might get higher offers.

But no, we arrived at the open house to find the house deserted, the gate to the driveway closed. We retreated to Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern on Machias Road and put in a call to the Redfin person who’d shown us the place. Turned out, there was an accepted offer already and the house was off the market, the open house cancelled.

I felt like a fool–I’d been dreaming of a house in that wooded area east of town almost since I’d first seen that area (on the very stunning drive to the local dump). Why hadn’t I moved faster, tried harder? Most homes around there were half a million dollars or more. Here was one we could actually have afforded.

Drinking beer and licking our wounds by the river on Doc’s back deck, we decided we’d be quicker and more decisive next time we found something we really liked…

Image: The forest near the house we didn’t get.

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Amaxophobia Part 2

April 13

This post will make more sense if you read Amaxophobia Part 1 first.

The visit to the eye place was fine. A little shopping around Fred Meyer afterward was OK too. Here’s what wasn’t fine: I so rarely get out of the office on my own that I’d had a whole plan, after I got my eye exam, to wander around a little and explore. Only now, there was no way at all that I could face doing that. It was dark outside, still rainy (of course) and the traffic was as thick as ever. All I could think was how much I wanted to be away from it and home.

So I got in my car and touched the “Home” icon on my GPS. It instructed me, once again, to get on The Dreaded I-5. As I sat in the traffic inching its way onto the highway, the GPS popped up with a blue screen and a choice: There was traffic ahead. Did I want to stay on this route or try an alternate route? I figured I’d stay on this route since I couldn’t see an easy way out of the traffic to get on a different one anyhow.

That’s when I discovered that I couldn’t reach the GPS and keep my foot on the brake pedal at the same time. My new-to-me car had an aerodymanic profile that includes a long windshield angled low, so that when I suction-cupped the GPS near the bottom of the windshield so it wouldn’t obstruct my vision, I had also put it too far away for my short arms to easily reach. Until I made a selection, the blue screen would remain, which meant I no longer had a map to guide me. In a calmer state I would have remembered that whether or not I could see the map, the GPS would still give me vocal instructions and I would still make my way home. But all I could think was that I was alone in the dark in the rain in heavy traffic and effectively blind as to where to go.

Eventually, thankfully, the traffic got so bad that it came to a complete halt, which gave me the few moments I needed to squirm my way up to the windshield and touch the icon for “Current Route.” The map reappeared. Half an hour later I pulled up outside our white farmhouse and before I even got out of the car, I pulled the GPS off the windshield and replaced it where I could reach it.

Then I went inside in a high dudgeon. I’d have railed to Bill if he’d been home but he was out somewhere, probably playing music. So I did something I nearly never do–all by myself I poured myself a small scotch. I stood in the living room, with the lights still off, drinking my scotch and looking out the window and thinking: All I wanted was a damned eye exam! It would have been the simplest thing in the world to drive down to Kingston and go to Vision Excel on 9w. If only we were still back there.

But here’s the thing. Yes there’s nasty, nasty traffic here, but Washington drivers are also different from the drivers on the East Coast, and in a good way. In retrospect, one thing that added to my general sense of unease on the drive to and from the eye exam was the complete lack of aggression on the road. No honking. Washington drivers almost never use their horns. They don’t tailgate or flash their lights at you, except to warn of a nearby cop. Eventually, I came to think of it this way: Washington drivers don’t think it’s their job to tell other drivers how to drive.

That makes them different from New York drivers–even Bill. If Bill finds himself driving behind someone going down a country road at five miles less than the speed limit, he’ll complain bitterly to me in the passenger seat, but also might find himself tailgating and maybe flashing his lights. And if someone is going slow in the left lane, rather than pass on the right he’ll communicate in every way he can that the driver ahead of him should pull the hell over.

Back in New York I had become accustomed to this sort of instruction (to use a kind term for it) from my fellow drivers. Washington drivers may go around you if there’s room to do it. But most of them won’t pressure you if they think you’re going too fast, or too slow, or waiting too long to make a turn, or whatever it may be. This live-and-let-live approach to life goes way beyond just driving. I think it’s a legacy of the pioneer West, as opposed to the colonial East.

They also look out for other drivers in ways New Yorkers don’t. The merging lanes onto Route 9 from Second Street near our house seem impossibly–dangerously–short to me. But that’s because, in my mind, I’m imagining how New York drivers would barrel by them, not giving entering drivers much space to join the road, making things awkward for everyone.

Washington drivers always, always let other drivers in. To a fault. The first time I merged onto Route 9, I saw a car coming up behind me and slowed way down, assuming it would fly past and then I’d merge onto the road. Only it didn’t fly past as I waited, going slower and slower. Finally I heard the rare sound of a horn and looked in my mirror to discover that the other driver had slowed to a crawl and was patiently waiting for me to enter the road.

What a weird experience.

Image: Travis Juntara via Creative Commons

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Amaxophobia Part 1

Amaxophobia = The fear of riding in a vehicle. 

April 8, 2016

When it comes to some things, I’m a coward. Not that I’m not a courageous person in general–I think I’ve made some brave decisions in my life, as well as any number of cowardly ones. But there’s one activity where the fearful side of my nature emerges in full force, to the point where I’m nearly incapacitated.


Most people I know are comfortable behind the wheel. But they didn’t live in Manhattan, then Iowa City, then Paris, and then Manhattan again–all places where most everything is walkable, there’s plenty of public transportation, and a driver’s license is nice to have but in no way a necessity. In concentrated cities with good public transportation such as New York or Paris, having a car can be more of an expensive nuisance than anything else.

Thus, though I took Driver’s Ed and got a driver’s license back in high school like everyone else, once I had the license I never actually used it except on the rare business trip or vacation until I moved to Woodstock at the age of 32. For the first time I began driving on a daily basis.

But Woodstock is very different from here. It’s 100 miles from New York City, whereas Snohomish is less than 30 miles from downtown Seattle. In Woodstock we were in the country. Snohomish is a small town, but drive a mile or two south on Route 9, and you’re unmistakably in the suburbs. Or you can just stand still and wait for the suburbs to come to you.

From my point of view, the big difference, the oh-my-God-this-changes-everything difference, is traffic. Living in Woodstock kept me out of any kind of traffic except on those rare occasions when I drove north to Albany, or even rarer, south to Poughkeepsie. I never drove to what we simply called The City–it was so easy not to, with the Metro-North commuter rail line right there on another North-South state road that paralleled a major highway and for some reason was also called Route 9. If you were smart, you stayed off the New York State Thruway northbound on Friday afternoons in summer, and then southbound on Sunday evenings. Other than that, traffic was something I never had to think about. Snow, ice, and winding mountain roads, yes. Deer leaping in front of the car were a constant worry. Traffic, no.

Here, traffic is all around, even on the thoroughfares through Snohomish (though we’re learning some back ways), up and especially down 9, on the way to Everett, which is what you might call our market town, and thick the moment you head in the direction of Seattle. And this is the West, where traffic is inescapable. You can’t ignore it by walking everywhere, you can’t circumvent it with public transportation, you’re stuck with it. It’s a major problem for everyone, but most people just find it deeply annoying. I also find it frightening.

Not long after we moved here, I decided to have an eye exam. Not because I couldn’t see but because I hadn’t had one in a while. As a matter of fact, I have the worst vision one can have and still legally drive without glasses in Washington State, although I always do wear glasses when I’m driving.

I made an appointment, headed to the eye place at Fred Meyer (a local big-box store), and found myself in heavy urban late-afternoon traffic. It was winter, and therefore rainy. I followed my GPS instructions onto I-5, also known as The Dreaded I-5. There are many good ways of going back and forth between Snohomish and Everett and none of them involve I-5, but nevertheless most GPS systems will send you by I-5 by default and I hadn’t yet learned any other ways to get there.

At least I wasn’t on the Dreaded I-5 for very long. In less than ten miles, I was instructed to exit onto Evergreen Way, a four-lane road that at that hour was a solid wall of traffic. The Fred Meyer was just over a quarter mile away–but on which side? The GPS would only tell me when I reached that quarter-mile. And if I guessed wrong, there would be no way I could get over in time. I eased to the right lane, partly out of a vague memory that it would be on that side and partly because the thought of a left turn in that mess gave me the heebie jeebies. By some stroke of luck, I guessed right.

Want to know what happens next? Stay tuned for Part 2.

Image of The Dreaded I-5: Jeff Wilcox via Creative Commons

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Not Confusing at All

There’s a song by the Emerald City Jug Band that our friend Drew played us when we were first planning to move here. It’s called “Don’t Come to Seattle,” and it’s all about how unwelcome new arrivals to the area are. Is that how locals (most of whom also started life elsewhere) really feel about newcomers? If they do, you can’t blame them–more people are moving here now than at any time since the Gold Rush.

I don’t believe new people truly are unwelcome, at least not in Snohomish, which despite severe economic pressure to turn itself into a far suburb of Seattle and Redmond remains a charming old-style small town. And people in Washington seem to be unfailingly friendly, warm, and generally happy–there must be Prozac in the water, Drew says.

So perhaps there’s some other explanation I can’t think of for the way streets and places are named around here which seems deliberately intended to confuse people and send them off in the wrong direction. Bill and I have encountered this phenomenon so many times we’ve developed a ritual around it.

Me: “That’s not confusing!”

Him: “Not at all.”

Take Second Street (not 2nd Street) in Snohomish. Logically enough, that’s a long street that runs parallel to the Snohomish River and is between First and Third Streets in the old part of town. West of Ludwig Road, it’s called Riverview Road, and it runs right along the river, at some point changing its name to Rivershore Road. (That’s not confusing! Not at all.)

Going east, from Ludwig Road through most of Snohomish, it’s called Second Street, then the same road, without turning, changes into 92nd Street, and a bit further, still without turning, becomes 88th Street. One result is that if you’re driving east on Route 2 and want to go into Snohomish, you have to take the 88th Street exit which puts you onto 92nd Street. That’s not confusing either.

In Seattle, it’s even worse. Everyone knows the mnemonic for the names of Seattle’s major thoroughfares–Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest–but can’t recite the names of the streets those letters stand for. And did I mention that each of these letters stands for not one street but two–Jefferson and James, Cherry and Columbia, Marion and Madison…you get the idea. Are you confused yet? I certainly am.

Even the Seahawks, who personify their city in so many ways, are in on this. Wilson successfully passed to Willson during their last playoff game this season. But here’s my favorite of them all:

In Monroe, the next town east of here, is Tye Lake, a man-made lake stocked with plenty of fish and set up for family recreation. In Concrete, about 80 miles further east and north, is Lake Tyee, a much larger lake with an RV community along its shores. Were both were named for the surveyor William Francis Tye, who laid out the railroad line across Stevens Pass? Who knows?

All I can say is this:

That’s not confusing!

Not at all.

Christmas Present, Christmas Past


Chrismast past in Woodstock. Image: Luke H. Gordon via Creative Commons

Back in New York, we had a Christmas tradition of sorts. We would shop furiously in the last weeks before Christmas, mostly online, but sometimes in stores as well. (We did the frantic Walmart-on-Christmas-Eve thing a couple of times, but that gets old fast.)

Christmas Eve, if Bill’s daughter Alyssa wasn’t hosting a gathering (it’s also her birthday) we would watch Santa arrive on the Woodstock Village Green. For those of you not from Ulster County, it’s a thing–Santa arrives on the Green at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, Woodstock time, which means anywhere between 5:15 and 5:45. Every year it’s different. In past years he’s arrived by elephant and camel (real) hang glider (suspended from a crane), giant dove that landed on a giant guitar (in honor of the Woodstock Festival symbol), flying VW minibus, and this year, although we weren’t there, he apparently arrived by pirate ship in the pouring rain.

After Santa, we’d return home to frantic candy-making or baking, and then present wrapping. I’d sit on the living room floor, surrounded by paper, ribbons, and tape, constantly misplacing and re-finding my scissors, with a Christmas movie playing on Netflix. Bill would stand at the dining table with his own scissors and tape, we’d get an assembly line going, and usually wouldn’t get finished until much too late at night.

The next morning we’d wake, bleary-eyed, drag ourselves to the car, and race up to Catskill or Albany or Freehold or Medusa, depending on where the kids and grandkids were gathering. Sometimes we’d bop from one to the other if they weren’t all in the same place. I would start out grumpy, feeling put out, and wishing we could just have a quiet Christmas at home, but by the end of a day spent handing out presents to kids, unwrapping some of our own, and eating way too many sweets, I would feel festive and content.

But that was there and this is here. A year ago, the racing around we did was far enough before Christmas for us to send huge boxes, one to Bill’s daughter’s house, one to Bill’s son’s house, filled with presents we’d either bought locally or ordered online in time to pack up. This fall was so crazy that we didn’t get it together to do that and wound up sending presents purchased online directly to their recipients, and also a box of extra doodads and gift cards that in each case arrived on the day after Christmas. We spent Christmas with the friends who inspired our move out here, friends so close they are almost like family. No presents by prior agreement. But we missed the kids and grandkids back in the East.

Last year it didn’t bother me; we’d only just moved. This year, even though we’d spent a lot of time with Steve’s family in August and Alyssa’s family in October, it bugged me a lot. Christmas felt decidedly un-Christmasy and the relentlessly rainy Western Washington weather didn’t help. It would have been silly to fly home for Christmas when we’d been there less than two months earlier after Mom died. (Maybe that’s another thing that made Christmas not feel like Christmas.) But…next year?

Part of me likes the idea of going–I’m training myself not to say “home”–back to New York for Christmas. But then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss New Year’s here, which was so nice that I dragged myself to two parties with a bad cold and had a great time anyway. The Hungry Pelican, where the old Hawthorne crowd now congregates for its Thursday night open mic and jam, had a heckuva nice New Year’s party and most of the Snohomish gang was there. There was great food, even better music, and a champagne and a lot of noisemakers and streamers at midnight.

I wouldn’t want to miss that next year. I guess this is what comes of having one foot in two places that each in its way feels like home. Christmas 2016 in New York, New Year’s in Snohomish…? Something to contemplate.

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Mom & Me

Mom and Minda

My mother died at 91, during the night of Labor Day, apparently in her sleep. She looked peaceful, and so beautiful, say the people who saw her body. I was 3,000 miles away.

Mom had Alzheimer’s for 15 years before she died, needing increasing care, losing quality of life drop by drop until there was nothing left. Before we moved, I asked my stepsisters’ permission to leave, since they were the ones caring for Mom and my 102-year-old stepfather Bill as well. But I knew they wouldn’t say no. They had been coping with everything beautifully, with only the very occasional request for help, such as our last Christmas on the East Coast which we spent with Mom and Bill. Which in retrospect means I got to be with Mom for her second-to-last Christmas on earth.

My history with Mom was complicated and wonderful because she herself was complicated and wonderful. Born in a village in the Philippines, she ran away from home at 13–by stowing away on a boat!–to escape the marriage her mother had arranged for her. She sang to the troops during the war, and afterward became an actress, starring in more than 20 Philippine movies. She kept acting, and working in theater, after moving here.

She met my father while he was vacationing in pre-Castro Havana and she was performing at the Tropicana. He was a psychiatrist, in every way her opposite, which may have been why they fell in love. It was a marriage that could never work in the long run.

When I was small she doted on me completely, lavishing me with the over-the-top affection she brought to everyone and everything she loved. When I was 11, she left my father, which is where things first began to get complicated. She was right to go. He was a good man, and a talented psychiatrist, but not able to be entirely present in their marriage or any relationship. I would live with her of course. No one ever considered any other possibility.

When I was 13, our relationship began to unravel. It was the same age at which she herself left her mother’s home–not a coincidence, I’ve been told by a therapist. To my perceptions then, she was completely erratic. The same transgression that got little reaction one day would send her into a rage the next. Sometimes I walked around thinking, “I hate her, I hate her,” over and over. I told my father again and again that I couldn’t stand living with her and eventually he asked me to move in. He told her it was for a couple of weeks; he told me it would really be permanent. It was a brilliant maneuver–she never would have let me go if she’d known the true plan. For the next few years, our relationship was tense, unpleasant, occasionally confrontational, and then practically nonexistent

With hindsight I can now see that Mom was living on her own for the first time in many years. My 22-year-old half-sister, who had just relocated from the Philippines, lived with us for a while, but after she moved on, I was the only other person in the household. She must have yearned for me to fill some of that void. Whereas I, as an adolescent, was in that stage of life where you separate emotionally from your birth family in order to become part of a larger world. It was a case of spectacularly bad timing.

We recovered, because we both grew up. After I went away to college, I found myself rediscovering my mother on my trips home. She had found her footing as a single woman and she talked to me like I was another grownup which I suppose I was. When I graduated, she advised me on my job hunt and tried to get me a job at Time, Inc. When I found work in publishing, she celebrated my successes. She gave me a Philodendron 30 years ago to celebrate my first business trip. I regretfully left that plant, which had grown huge, back in Woodstock, but a descendent is sprawling across the bookshelf in my office here.

Because of this history, I now tell people struggling with difficult teenagers to hang on, that better days are ahead. For me and Mom, the good and bad days are all behind us. And yet, it doesn’t really feel like she’s gone. Maybe because, I’ve been listening to her voice in my head for all these years, and it’s still there.

Goodbye, Mom. This world had never seen anything like you, and it never will again. I’m so lucky that you’re part of me.

Norman and Amanda

September 15, 2015

(Catching up to the present with this post.)

Amanda Meyer was born in 1912, the same year as my father and died on Bill’s birthday last year, at 101. She lived 99 of those years in Snohomish, and 83 of them here in this house on Ludwig Road, where she moved as a 19-year-old bride in 1931.

Her husband Norman L. Meyer was born in 1906 in Wisconsin but lived most of his life here and grew up on this property in a house that burned down and was replaced by this one. He and Amanda went to school together and she said he teased her but she got even by marrying him. At least, that’s what one family member told me when they dropped by to check something on the property. Norman’s nephew is our landlord. Living in this house, where Norman and Amanda spent all 69 years of their marriage, you might say Bill and I are slightly obsessed with them.

I can’t imagine any of it. I can’t imagine living over 80 years in the same house, or marrying at 19 and staying married for life, or living as they did, on a family farm with cows, horses, chickens, fruit trees, and I’m not sure what else. Last weekend, some old friends on their way to visit their graves in the cemetery up the road pulled into the driveway on impulse to see who was living here now. “Norman did a lot of grafting,” one of them told us, solving the mystery of why the big cherry tree near the wood shed seems to bear both Bing and Rainier cherries.

The two of them, and then Amanda by herself, must have watched as the city spread and development filled in the farmland. Were they proud to see their city grow or sad to see the farming way of life disappearing? They built this graceful house, and married, in the midst of the Great Depression. What was that like around here?

The house next door to ours, even older than this one I think, was recently sold to the developers whose work is coming up Ludwig Road, straight toward us like a slow-motion freight train. Bill went to a hearing about it and learned there was no way to slow the process, or even make the developer save the huge and ancient oak tree standing on the property in a region that–to my East Coast eyes–could use a few more deciduous trees.

We thought they’d be slow to sell the houses they’d built so far–big houses a few feet from one another with almost no lawns. “17 Unique Floor Plans” boasts the sign for the development. Since there are more than 60 houses, the language maven in me has been resisting the urge to drop by with a dictionary and explain the definition of “unique.” But that’s the least of our worries.

Bill brought home the map of the planned development and it’s evident from the way its roads come to the edge of our property and stop abruptly that in their future planning this place is next. If that happens, it won’t be for at least a couple of years. In the meantime, construction will start any time now on the property next door. We’ll watch the ancient trees come down. Building will come to within two feet of our driveway.

A couple of weeks ago, Norman’s great-nephew was here, looking over the property, and we learned a bit more. Norman worked for Weyerhaeuser and was, his nephew says, “A lumber snob.” So that almost none of the wood in this house has even a single knot in it. Also that the last time the barn was re-roofed the people who did it were cursing Norman for “using so many nails.” Meaning that he didn’t just have the house built, and the barns, garage, woodshed, and chicken coop. He himself built them.

It seems the house with its outbuildings could be parcelled off from the rest of the nine acres that inevitably will be developed for housing and so we may try to buy it, though we’re not sure we can afford it. If we don’t, sooner or later, the beautiful knotless barn will be destroyed, and the barn owls who fly out every night to hunt will have to go elsewhere. And the house too will likely be demolished, Norman’s fine wood and excessive nails carted away as debris. Or else, it’ll be remodeled into something unrecognizable and moved to a tiny corner, as happened to the hundred-year-old house in the development next door.

Either way, I hope Norman and Amanda, wherever they are, won’t be watching.

Image: My photo of Norman’s knotless barn

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Ludwig Road

November 12, 2014

We had decided that Snohomish was the right town for us after all. But where to actually live? Bill had his wish list: A yard, some grass, a house, not an apartment. Someplace where I could have a vegetable garden, since I had a huge one back in Woodstock.

Bill is a very avid vicarious gardener–perhaps he’d be an avid gardener himself if he could bend down and sit on the ground as easily as I can. Us growing our own foods sets off a primal form of satisfaction in him. It reminds me of the first time he went fishing after we got together. Generally, he’s a catch-and-release fisherman, but this one time he killed and cleaned a bass, cooked in on the grill, and watched me eat it with intense satisfaction. Me…feed…woman.

So, he wanted a garden. I wanted to walk to town.Walking into town was one thing I loved about the house we briefly owned in Massachusetts and one of the few things I didn’t entirely love about the Woodstock house–it was three miles to town so walking there and back was enough of a commitment that I only did it once. If we were a walkable distance to town, we would both walk more, I thought.

The final item on our wish list was not a wish but a must-have: rent approximately equal to the rent we would receive for the Woodstock house. That might be tricky, I realized, because Snohomish County is an upwardly mobile county in a region where the rapid dominance of tech has brought growing economic might. It’s also closer to the big city (the next county down is King County, which contains Seattle), and much more urban than rural Ulster County was back in the Hudson Valley.

November is a tough month to look for rentals (conversely, a pretty good month to be a landlord looking for tenants, I’ve found). The woman at the real estate agency looked through her list of rentals, thought for a while, then asked if we’d be willing to come up some over our target price.

Maybe…we said.

Then she called one of the agents to ask if some prospective landlords might be willing to come down some from their price. Yes, was the answer.

We were skeptical–the proposed price was the same as for the condo in the middle of town that was pretty nice and would save us on utilities, yard maintenance, water, and garbage removal. This house didn’t sound any bigger than that large condo. But we agreed to take a look. And then we fell in love.

Ludwig Road turned out to be right next to, and parallel to, route 9. Suburban-style houses, side by side, fairly modest, then a new development in the midst of being built, and then…a tall white farmhouse, set back from the road, with two horses grazing in a paddock in front of it. The horses belonged to a family friend who lived nearby and they would be leaving soon, we were told. They looked like they belonged–it seems that every house in Snohomish with a bit of land has to host at least two horses on it. There was a large and beautiful old gray barn, a shed by a paddock in the back with a couple more horses, a wood shed and a long flat building that turned out to be a chicken coop. It had been a real working family farm.

But what really got us was the living room. It stretched the entire length of the house, with large windows on three sides and light pouring in from all directions, even on a rainy November day. The wallpaper had a 50’s look to it, though I imagine it’s really newer than that, light colored with a reflective sheen and sparkly accents that, Bill believes, make the room even brighter. I knew that lots of windows, letting in lots of natural light, would be my best defense against the psychological effect of the Northwestern winter gloom. I immediately wanted that living room.

But still, the rent was higher than we wanted. Well, we thought, we don’t actually need 9 acres. So I made a counter-proposal: Could they come down on the rent if we took just the house and the yard and the owners could still keep the paddocks to rent out for horses? The answer was yes–and they came right down to our planned maximum price.

There are a lot of things I love about this house: Its age, its character, the way you can see it from Route 9, for just a second between the trees, standing stately under a street light. The little trapdoor by the bathtub that goes straight down to the basement–for dropping laundry it was explained, and now I do that every day.

But the most perfectly on-target perfect thing about the house is the light fixtures in the living room. Relics of another era, they resemble nothing so much as fake flying saucers from bad 1950s sci-fi. Bill, the MST3K fan, used to have “Bad Movie Night” every couple of weeks where he and a friend or two would watch something like Robot Monster.

It was as though the house knew we were supposed to live here.



Snohomish After All

After all my arguing, after our admittedly bizarre plan to live in two places–one a small apartment in the city, one an RV in an RV park–we did what made the most sense on every level and looked for a rental in Snohomish. Bill yearned for a yard, some space to call our own. I wanted to be close enough to town to walk there, and also lots of light. Getting as much light as possible is important in the Pacific Northwest, I’d been warned, and I was on board with that plan. Fear of seasonal affective disorder is the only thing that ever made me hesitate about living here.

The Hawthorne alerted us to condos for rent, right in the middle of town, above a health food restaurant called Grilla Bites that we like a lot. We went and looked at one and it was very nice, and surprisingly roomy, with nice fixtures and a gas fireplace and a balcony overlooking First Street. Tempting, but from Bill’s point of view lacking a yard and from my point of view not really a walk into town since it already was in the center of town. Plus it was a little more than we were comfortable paying.

We said maybe and went to Gilpin. Gilpin, a real-estate agency with its office on Avenue D, the artery that runs through both old and new Snohomish, seemed to have its sign outside every rental we’d checked out on our just-getting-a-sense-of-what’s-out-there explorations on previous trips. And so I had gotten it in my head that when we were ready to rent in Snohomish, Gilpin was the place to go.

Devoted readers of this blog may remember that I was at one time determined not to live in Snohomish. Why did I change my mind? For one thing, our tentative plan to live in two places, an RV park and a studio in Seattle turned out to be impractical if only because affordable Seattle studios aren’t plentiful. And once on the ground in Snohomish County I realized more fully why Bill needed to be here–there’s an intense and active community of musicians based around this town. So much so that many members of the community drive long distances several times a week to take part in its gigs and open mics, which really amount to wonderful music sessions with jamming among really proficient musicians. Non-musicians turn up just to listen.

And all these musicians get gigs and the local bars are happy to give them gigs because they know the musician community turns out for each other. And so every place around here has live music, even the pizza parlor where Bill runs an open mic on Wednesday nights. Our friends are here, the housing is affordable, and Bill needs to be in or near Snohomish nearly every night of the week.

And then there’s the fact that Snohomish is old. Coming from the East Coast, especially the oh-so-Colonial Hudson Valley, this is something that you to want and expect, the personality and history of old structures. But old structures are few and far between here in the West. Towns like Mill Creek are beautiful but too new-looking for us. Snohomish is a turn-of-the 20th Century logging town that has carefully preserved its downtown, its historic central neighborhood and many of its old buildings.

And so I who had argued long into the night that I didn’t want to live in Snohomish, that it felt like giving in to the path of least resistance rather than forging our own way, capitulated completely. And not unhappily. Besides the many music venues for Bill to play at, this town has a yoga studio that I like, a great health food restaurant (the aforementioned Grilla Bites), a good Thai place right downtown, Pho (which Bill and I both love now that we live where it’s readily available) and lots of nice places to walk.

And then there’s the name, obviously Native American, seeming more like an adjective than a noun to our English-speaking brains. I love giving my address to people in other places. It’s just so much more intriguing a city name than Lake Stevens or Mill Creek or Lake Forest Park.

Admittedly, it’s farther from Seattle than I wanted. Or thought I wanted. Because I still haven’t entirely figured out what that is.

Image: Erin Kohlenberg via Creative Commons

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Welcome Home!


I hadn’t been in the Hawthorne Pub in many months, and things had changed. It was still tiny, the downstairs of what had once been an ordinary house, with a not-too-big room in the front with tables and a stage for performers. Further back was an even smaller room, called, for some reason, the Whistle Punk Tap Room, where there was a bar with taps and wines. No hard liquor at the Hawthorne.

The walls were still dark wood with random rock-and-roll art artifacts mounted on them, including a poster for Lost Dogma, the band where Ted, the owner, was the bass player. But the wall between the tap room and the performance room had in large part been removed and fixtures everywhere had been redone and spiffed up, the work of our soon-to-be good friend Kyle.

It was our second night in Snohomish County, the night of Bill’s gig that we had raced across the country to make. And the place was packed. “When Bill has a gig, everybody plays!” I’d once heard him tell some musician friends. And indeed, after he started out with his familiar tunes and “Gear Shift,” his signature tune that demonstrates his agility with a pick and a slide, he began inviting them onto the stage,  to join him.

I sat, spouse of the star, at a table right up front, jammed in with Joe, Bill’s new good friend, a keyboard, guitar player, and one of the few singers I’ve encountered on a par with Bill. Joe and Bill together are a duo called Cool & Groovy (Bill’s “Cool” and Joe’s “Groovy,” the theory goes). Bruce, ASJA’s webmaster and our first friend in Seattle sat on my other side with his friend. The stage got more and more crowded as musicians came and, less often, went. “Welcome home!” they told Bill, one after another. “Welcome home!”

I sat there smiling. He was so happy, and I was happy for him. But also a little envious. He was so at home here, and already had so many friends. When would I make my own friends? And when would this place start feeling like home?

Toward the end of the evening, Bill decided to try something out he’d been fooling with behind the wheel for the last couple of days of our trip, a jazzy little jingle he’d made up just for the Hawthorne:

Come to the Hawthorne if you like good music,

Come to the Hawthorne if you like good food.

Come to the Hawthorne for local beer, wine, and cider–

Nothing’s finer than a night out at the…Hawthorne!

There were two verses and a bridge and Bill had worked it all out while driving–vocally. Unfortunately, although he’s extraordinarily good at both driving and playing guitar, even Bill couldn’t do both those things at once so he hadn’t worked out the guitar part to go with it. This, from what I’ve observed, is the opposite of how he usually writes songs, which begin on the guitar and have a vocal line and lyrics added afterward.

But Bill is a fearless performer and lives (both musically and in life) by his ability to improvise. So he went for it. He summoned Rod, who plays bass for about half the bands in Snohomish to the stage. Now, Rod had never heard this little tune and he was about to provide its only accompaniment, but being another fearless performer, he was game.

Only now, where was the Hawthorne’s owner Ted? Tapping a keg, it turns out, an operation that takes a little while and can’t be stopped in the middle. There was a bit of awkward shuffling around but eventually Ted appeared, looking harried and carrying a very large wrench.

“We don’t got it,” Bill said. “But we’re going to do it anyway.” And he launched into “Come to the Hawthorne” with Rod following along pretty decently on his bass.

By the end of the evening, Bill was glowing and all his friends had crowded on and off the stage. Near the end, he played with Jeff, a sort of musical Swiss army knife who plays guitar, drums, and harmonica. They did Railroad Earth’s “Bird in a House,” a song that I love and didn’t know anyone else knew about. Then Bill finished off with a couple of his songs.

We climbed happily into our van bed with our cats that night. This was it. It was exactly what we’d come here for, ripping up our Woodstock life and driving more than 3,000 miles with our cats cooped up and our trailer in tow. Just this.