My wife and I were intentionally late bloomers in the conventional scheme of things. In our mid-thirties, we just recently bought our first house.
It wasn't long ago that we'd thought homeowning was for folks who were afraid to get their feet wet in life -- as if the house were an enormous wood and plaster security blanket, a refuge from the somewhat gamy realities we considered fuel for youthful adventure.
But we'd finally grown weary of firing rent checks into the economic void. We wanted a home, our home, not just the place that served as someone else's tax break. And we were tired of the off-white walls that compulsive landlords love.
We looked at dozens of potential buys. But it was only when we saw a modest red brick Colonial tucked away in a woody enclave of the District that we knew we'd found our firstreal home. It had a fireplace, a guest room, office space, a refurbished kitchen and a handsome hardwood deck in back.
We took the plunge, and now we're trying to stay afloat, tending to erratic appliances, watching out for sales we'd previously disdained and covering bills through some truly creative accounting.
Nothing had quite prepared me for the mental gynastics required of successful first-timers. I'm sure homeowning isn't such a shock for folks who step out of their graduation gowns and are immediately fitted for a homey hearth and loving brood. But my friends and I were very wary of convention.
For us, the decision to buy a house was symptomatic of A Change, a psychological menopause, after which life was no longer the stomping grounds of a fertile imagination. We used to make fun of designers and decorators. Our idea of interior decoration was an original mural over the mantel -- usually painted at the peak of a late-night party.
Nowhen the boys drop by for an evening of seven- card stud, their heels pound ing the floorboards with the import of pointy-toed boots, they aren't interested in making side bets on the big game or chauvinistically dwelling on the female form. They hassle over interest rates and swap numbers for reliable plumbers.
I'M ALL FOR TRANSITION, but homeowning caught me off guard.
Graduation was a breeze by comparison. When I left school behind, it slowed me down only a step or two. My first employers defined freedom as two weeks in the first year, three in the second. Fortunately, I was from California -- I could flow. When things got tough, a friend and I would jam a spare shirt into a pack, lock the apartment door and hitchhike down the highway, our long locks blowing in the breeze.
Besides, I worked for an underground newspaper. Though we were in the heart of town, the crazies upstairs raised chickens in shopping carts parked on our back steps. Occasionally a pick-up band would tune up in the lobby, and we would dance through the business office. Poets drifted through with wads of inspiration they shared with us despite our protests.
Convention was safely kept at bay. Homeowning was still for straights and nerds.
Unfortunately, conventional economics eventually closed the door to that newspaper. That's when I knew the ponytail had to go. It had been relatively easy to admit that maybe Marx didn't have The Answer. And the transition from the Grateful Dead to Dexter Gordon had seemed a perfectly natural one. But with the hair, truth and beauty were somehow on the line, and quickly snipped.
Of course, the larger beauty is that hair still grows.
I suppose that was one of the problems. Transitions, however traumatic, were easily survived. Free will was only modified, not revoked. How could homeowning be any more threatening than Oxford cloth shirts and wing tips?
When I got married, my wife slipped a ring around my finger. The gesture complemented the passage that reads, "To have and to hold until death do you part."
When we settled on our house, I felt the loan officer should have been there to slip me another ring. A big one, hung ceremoniously through my nose, with the touching salutation, "To have and to owe until you can't afford it anymore."
Of course, there is a positive side to homeowning. For the first time in my life, when I climb in the car at the end of the day, I am truly going Home. It's just that when you're issued the instruction booklet to Life, the makers should have boldfaced the physics at work: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
We no longer have to kowtow to the landlord whose idea of a good time is to harass lowly tenants into paying the rent on time; now if we're late, the mortgage company threatens us with hefty penalties. When the pipes burst, we no longer have to wait for the landld's cheapo brother-in-law to come to the rescue; now we call the plumber with the big ad in the Yellow Pages, an ad we finance through rates a defense contractor would envy.
And everyone will tell you about the tax credits for all that interest you pay on mortgages, but they neglect to remind you about the weighty tab the local tax authorities levy on your paltry property.
Homeowning has given me a new appreciation for the almighty dollar. I once felt safe and sound with a few mangled dollars in my pocket. When the lenders revealed the total bill for the 30-year term of the mortgage (four times the purchase price of the house), I realized that money -- my money in particular -- was worth little more than the colorful denominations from a Monopoly board.
As the agents, attorneys, sellers and the two of us sat down to sign the final papers, I thought, "This must be what Yalta was like." I just prayed we weren't giving too much away.
The settlement agent smiled and slowly slid the forms in front of us. "I think you'll find everything is in order," she said. When I saw the bottom line, I knew why she wore a solar-powered smile.
It's funny how you can lambaste the cleaners for charging 90 cents a shirt, then turn around and casually sign a tab for thousands as if you'd just treated a buddy to a Budweiser.
But for all the gripes, we haven't suffered second thoughts. The twinges of angst are more like growing pains. If I suffer an attack, I simply stroll around the house, checking the peeling pink-flowered wallpaper and dreaming about the splashes of paint that will wipe it out forever.
Then I dig out a pen, hunker down and finish paying bills.