Monday, 30 April 2012

Adventures in real estate

Does a house need a lift? I don't mean, a lift in aesthetics as in: a styling facelift.  In Sydney real estate this translates as 'place manic 10-tiered rows of throw cushions on every available soft-furnishing surface then plant a giant faux-cast-iron headless bust of some anonymous body in the corner of the living room and carefully position an imposing bowl of emu eggs on the coffee table.'  (A big French provincial clock above the master bed is also essential.  I'm never sure why anyone needs a giant clock ticking over their head as they sleep.)

No what I mean is, does a house need an elevator? Does your house need an elevator?  My sister's house could probably do with an elevator, it's a narrow three storey terrace and the living room is on the lower level, so if you leave your phone in your bag upstairs, you have to climb two flights to get it when it rings. Or you don't hear it ring at all.

But imagine it did have a lift:  you'd hear the phone ring, follow the signs to the elevator, press the up button and then probably have to wait.  In that time you could have climbed two flights of stairs to get your phone (tripped over the cat) and dropped about half a kilo in the process.

Hence, therefore, ergo: I say, houses don't need lifts. (Despite the fact that my sister's cat seems determined to 'fell' me every time I take on the stairs.)

However, during my adventures in real estate, I have witnessed many houses with lifts.

The other day I saw one such house.  They were very proud of it, their house.  They welcomed me inside with a gracious 'behold our luxury home' hand gesture and a 'you will not believe your eyes' look on their faces. It was the sort of house that had been built and designed not to live in but to 'sell'. Presmuably to some sucker who thinks that houses need lifts, a fully-equipped bar, a gymnasium, an outdoor kitchen and video intercom security that takes photos of the burglar when they are inside robbing you.

It was shiny new and painfully luxurious.

In fact,  I believe my headline was:  'Luxury family palace with stunning water views.'  (No judgement please, see my previous post What do you do?)  

I made sure to say, "My goodness, this house is absolutely amazing!" as many times as I could within earshot of the owners.

People are very touchy about their homes and if you are going to infiltrate their private space, you have to stroke their egos a bit.  I learned this by trial and error.  When I make a big fuss about how much I love someone's home, they seem to like my copy* better.  They think to themselves, "She really was a kindred spirit with impeccable taste like us, whatever she writes will obviously be high quality and spot on."

If I say nothing and zip in and out in 10 minutes (which FYI is all you need to do if you are going to write approximately 900 characters of copy on ANOTHER renovated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life-with-a-white-CaesarStone-kitchen two bedroom semi in Annandale zzzzz) they really, really hate both me and my copy.

This is what they think when I zip in and out and don't pay compliments to their home:

"That copywriter was a lazy self-involved woman who wouldn't know top notch Sydney real estate if she fell over it. Clearly she is a sloppy writer who does not use enough adjectives."

(Admittedly I have missed entire rooms when I have been in a hurry. But in my defence, the one time I missed an entire room was complicated by the fact that I had to walk through a bedroom to get to the sneaky hidden room. At the time there happened to be a half-nude man in the bedroom.  It seemed an invasion of his privacy to just waltz on through and start pushing doors open while he was in there changing his pants.)

So anyway, I usually make sure I say something like,

"Wow, what a wonderful solution to kitchen clutter: build a secret functional kitchen behind the real display kitchen."


"I just can't get enough of plantation shutters, they are just so wonderfully stylish."


"I simply adore white and taupe bathrooms with frameless glass shower recesses and big free-standing bowl vanities."


"How much? I'd love to buy it." And when told.  "What a shame, it's just out of my budget and I actually don't really need a master bedroom with an open plan ensuite." 

Which brings me to another thing that luxury houses don't need: open plan ensuites. If you haven't seen an open plan ensuite and don't know what I'm talking about let me expand.

An open plan ensuite is where the master bedroom has a bathroom in it but there are no walls between the bathroom and the bedroom. Yes, you read that right. The toilet is right there. Inside your bedroom. With no walls between you and the stink your husband makes. No walls. I have seen this many times, with my own disbelieving eyes.

Another variation on this, is the ensuite with a chic opaque glass door. In this scenario, you don't get to smell what your husband is doing, but you get to view him in silhouette as he is doing it.

While we're on this, I also don't believe that one house needs three spa baths. (As seen with my own eyes somewhere in Strathfield.)  I think if you must have a spa bath, one is sufficient. (In my opinion, if you're interested, spa baths are best described as "pube shooters." If you want other people's pubes shooting out at you while you bathe then that is your business entirely.  For mine, it's not my cup of tea.)

Anyway, needless to say I did not use the lift in the Luxury Family Palace.  But I made sure to ask lots of curious questions about the 'high quality fittings,' so that everyone would think I was paying attention.  When my questions became too detailed for the owner, (somewhere after, "What kind of timber are these floors?") I was put on the phone to an unnamed man who spoke at length about the lighting and security systems.  After I had pretended to take copious detailed notes about that, I walked through the two-storey foyer (which was furnished only with a long flat NSW Art Gallery-style chaise longue) and went home to type the following award-winning paragraph:

Occupying a prime 682sqm block with a private elevated aspect capturing gorgeous water views over Oatley Bay, this palatial architect-designed residence offers the finest in design, finishes and picturesque alfresco living spaces.  Featuring an opulent three-level layout with multiple casual and formal living areas, an imposing entry foyer and lift access, it presents the ultimate family lifestyle close to waterfront reserves, shops, transport and schools. 

The end.

*"copy" is the written component or text of a news story, advertisement, marketing material etc. as distinguished from the related visual material.
N.B a "copywriter" is the person who writes the copy.  Contrary to common belief amongst real estate agents a "copywriter" does not produce the "copyright." There is no copyright on your home when you are selling it.  Despite this fact,  I am often introduced to the vendor as the person who is  "here to do the copyright." 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

What Stinks, I'm Bored and What's For Dinner.

I have three children. Their names are: What Stinks, I'm Bored and What's For Dinner.  What Stinks, is probably the least tactful.  He frequently approaches people, holds his nose and declares loudly, "What stinks?"  It can be very disconcerting when you are the closest and most likely suspect.

Sometimes he says it when I am cooking dinner. 

I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean to be rude, he just has a very over-developed olfactory sense. Sometimes he is more specific and says things like, "Something stinks like garbage!" As he climbs into people's cars. It's a fair enough point when he's getting into our car, which does stink like garbage because of all the garbage left in there by What Stinks, I'm Bored and What's For Dinner.

But other people's cars are a different kettle of fish. If they stink like garbage, it's their business and not something What Stinks should be declaring openly.  He needs to learn to hold his tongue as well as his nose. 

Most recently something began to stink in What Stinks' room. His twin brother, I'm Bored, jumped ship and vacated the room to sleep in more fragrant peace with What's For Dinner.  The irony did not escape any of us: What Stinks lying alone in his room to suffer a stench of mysterious origin. 

It was the sort of stench that grows on you: the longer you stayed in there, the more your nose became accustomed to it and so you didn't notice it so much any more.  Every time I went in there, I would get a fresh wave and begin in earnest to sniff around the room like a bloodhound in a bid to pin it down before I could no longer notice it.  The smell was elusive. It was here, then it was there. The more you tried to pin it down, the more it seemed to just evaporate.

Until you walked out of the room and then walked back in again, when it would return in a fresh wave.

"What stinks?" He wailed. "Something stinks."

I removed all the clothes that were lodged beneath the bed in a stinky wodge. I sniffed them. They just smelled like musty unwashed clothes. I put them in the washing basket.

I sniffed What Stinks.  It wasn't him despite the fact he hadn't bathed for two days.  I sniffed his blanket. Not that either.  I sniffed his giraffe named Pickles. Nope.

I turned to face the door.

It was getting warmer, getting hotter, hot, hot, hot. I moved to the doorway, where the schoolbags were hanging. Hot. Hot. Piping Hot.
I opened the schoolbag that belonged to I'm Bored. Paydirt!

The source; a small tupperware container full of pieces of cooked chicken (I'm Bored, is also known as, What Did You Put In My Lunch? And when told, he declares with a siren sound that he doesn't like [insert what I put in his lunch here] A small container of cooked chicken breast represented our latest truce.)

From the smell and from the fact that it was Sunday night, I surmised that the source was about two days old. Not surprisingly the flesh of a dead animal smells exactly like a dead animal when it is left to putrify in a schoolbag over two days.

The discovery and its fresh unleashing, set off a chorus from either side of the hallway.

"Who did that?"
"What stinks?"
" Mu-um!"

As if I were the one to blame.

Window flung open. Schoolbag hurled out (with all its contents.) Problem solved.

Lights out. Goodnight.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

What do you do?

My local coffee shop is filled with the same people every morning.  They all seem to know each other's names.  Despite the fact that I go there every morning, no one knows mine.  I'm happy with this arrangement, but sometimes, like this morning when the barista's off-sider raised an arm to the woman behind me and called out, "Where've you been? We've missed you!" it bothers me. 

When I went in this morning, I was returning from a three week absence. The reason for my absence was partly a school holiday issue (I usually pick up my coffee after dropping my kids at school) and partly a 'too much information has been imparted now I must run away' sort of issue.

Like most people, I am a bit autistic about my morning coffee routine.  I've been getting the same coffee from the same coffee shop, at the same time, every morning for about 10 years.  The coffee shop has changed hands in the last year.

The previous owner was a quietly discomfited man who made consistently great coffee.  His off-sider was a chatty middle-aged woman who dressed slightly too young for her age and talked too much if you made eye contact.  As I am an expert at avoiding eye contact, it took them about five years to recognise me as "Small Skim Flat White No Sugar."  We were all happy with that level of intimacy.  Apart from a few awkward times when the barista attempted to challenge himself and move out of his comfort zone (and mine) by engaging in some 'witty chit-chat while I froth the milk' banter, they never asked me what my name was or what I did for a living.  I was supremely happy with that. 

Then about a year ago, they were body snatched.  In their place stood two fit younger men, who called women, 'darling.'   The switch happened over a school holiday period so again, I hadn't been there for a week or two. I made my way to the door like a homing pigeon and it wasn't until I was inside that my autism alarm bells began ringing. Something was different. I didn't like it.  Things had changed.

Change not good. Me like routine.

Where before there were brown chairs and tables and plain brown walls, now there were bright orange "poofs" (the seating kind, not the human kind) and a very busy and elaborate coffee bean pattern stencilled over the lower half of the walls.

My instinct was to back out quickly before anyone noticed me and just run. Change not good. Run, run away! But the off-sider caught my eye.
The eye contact was intense: it was like being hypnotised and I stepped forward to the counter.
  "What can I get you?" He smiled at me, as though he really liked me personally. Some people can do that. I find it disconcerting; but only because I'm such a sucker for it.

I placed my order, they were very friendly. The coffee was good.  They seemed to like me personally. My life went back to normal. I kept going there every morning.  I continued to announce myself as Small Skim Flat White No Sugar when I approached the bench.  I tried not to think about the fact that they seemed to know everyone else by their coffee name and not me.

 So recently, three weeks ago, when the off-sider looked at me and said, "Small skim flat white, no sugar, right?"
It seemed we'd made the required breakthrough. I no longer had to say my order, but neither did I have to tell them my name. I had become, once again, Small Skim Flat White No Sugar.

But before I could move away from the counter to take up my neutral 'waiting' position, the off-sider took  in my casual attire and said to me,
  "Not working today?" 
And then I made a fatal mistake. (I think it was his hypnotising friendly-face eyes.)
  "I work from home." Idiot!
  "Oh! What do you do?"
   What do I do? I ask myself the same question every day.

The truth is, it's a bit of everything. But not one thing can really define it. It's complex and can be embarrassing. For instance, sometimes I write real estate marketing copy. That's not something you want to tell people.  They'll laugh at you and go, "Oh, I know: Renovators Delight!" And really have a great old time jollying it up and spouting all the real estate cliches at you. Cue: fits of 'I can't believe how funny I am being!' laughter while they go on about how stupid real estate copy is. I get it. We all know it's dumb.  Call me hypersensitive but it makes me feel like a hack. I'd rather not tell people about it.

(For the record, I have tried to single-handedly raise the tone of real estate writing and make it more factual and elegant, but it was at my own peril. I didn't get work for a few months.  As a test I went back to  "Renovator's Delight!" and "Stunning Contemporary Haven!" and like magic the phone started ringing again.)

Other times I make videos for Kidspot. They're mostly craft videos. So that makes me sound like a weirdo who fusses around with glitter and toilet rolls all day, (which some days is an accurate description - see video below) Sometimes I work with my sister, a comedian. We sit around and try to write funny songs (because I used to be a musician and that's a whole other story.)  Sometimes we just sit around and spout what we call "edible garbage" (ideas that are just ideas and may be complete lunacy but you've got to say them out loud just in case they aren't)   It's all part of the process. But it doesn't seem like a job. I tour with her as well, but it's also difficult to describe how I fit in: musical stooge would be the best descriptor. (see video below)

Sometimes I try to write my own stuff.  I've had two books published and that's how I'd like to define myself so I said,
  "I'm a writer." 
That piqued his interest. I began to feel a rising panic. But then I was saved by the barista sliding my coffee across the counter in a "you're done" gesture. I took it and ran but as I did, the off-sider called after me:
  "Next time you come in I'm going to have to ask you about what you write!"
It seemed like a threat.

I didn't go back for three weeks. 

After three weeks I was half hoping he'd forget but some small part of me was looking forward to finally coming clean about what I write and who I am. (Who are you?)  A small part of me was hoping I might become part of the gang.  So as I entered, I braced myself for the inevitable imparting of personal information, I resigned myself to it.

Oh well, people want to get to know me, what can I do but oblige them? 

He raised his arm jubilantly.
  "Where've you been? We've missed you!" 
It took me a split second to realise he was talking to the woman behind me.

After she'd talked at length about what she'd been up to and had her order placed telepathically, he looked at me blankly, pen poised to write on the cup lid.

It seemed I had to remind him.

  "Small skim flat white, please." I said.
  "No sugar."

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Fruit is not dessert

My mother has a lot of strong opinions.  Sometimes they are just small things like, 'Say fluff not fart,' or 'I hate bagels, they are too chewy!' and at other times she channels Sean Penn and his uncompromising stance on the non-exisitence of WMDs in Iraq.  She can stop dinner parties with her views on such things.

  "There were NO weapons of mass destruction!" She shouts somewhere between dessert and coffee.  And when we all stop what we are doing, she says it again with a different emphasis, "There WERE no weapons of mass destruction!"

It's hard to know where to go with it.  We are all in agreement on this fact. Agreeing passionately is somehow not as satisfying  as disagreeing passionately on something.  It's disappointing when people don't put up a fight.  It's not quite the same to just shout an identical point of view at each other across the dinner table.
As you get older, you realise that you have absorbed a lot of your parents' traits.  I myself, have absorbed my mother's sudden need to get something off my chest, no matter how off topic it may seem at the time.

The other day we were talking on the phone about what she might serve for dinner when we came over. My children are notoriously fussy and so various culinary strategies need to be put in place to ensure that the evening goes smoothly and no one spends the night whining like some wretched starving-to-death character out of a Dickens novel. ("I'm so huuuungry! What can I have to EAT?" as though we have presented them with only a bowl of gruel.)

Before she'd even got past what she would serve to my kids, I suddenly found this sentence bursting out of my mouth:
   "Fruit is NOT dessert!"
   "Alright." She said, sounding slightly wounded.  "There's no need to shout."
   "I mean it though!" I said, really building up a head of steam.  "FRUIT is not dessert!"
This is one of the strong views on which we do differ.  She thinks fruit is dessert.  I do not.  My sister sits on the fence: she thinks fruit CAN be dessert but she's also happy to accept that a cake or brulee is the better option.  My father and brother sit on my side of the fence.  In fact, my brother (a chef) has been known to produce elaborate desserts in mass restaurant quantities (two dozen eggs to make five brulees, he is programmed to only produce food in commercial volumes and cannot seem to change his settings) to combat the 'fruit as dessert' issue. As he now lives in Japan, I have been fighting the battle alone.

One time I was so harried to produce something before we left for dinner at Mum's that I forgot to add a particular ingredient. It was doubly unfortunate that I then spent the evening doing regular "coming soon" bulletins about my miniature Portuguese tarts.

  "Hmm..." said my sister, chewing thoughtfully when I finally served them to much applause and fanfare, "it's sort of like... a dessert quiche."

I realised immediately what I'd done.  In fact, I remembered precisely the moment when I had been about to measure out the sugar: a vicious disagreement had broken out in the lounge room over who had taken whose head off whose Lego man and not replaced it. It was a difficult argument to adjudicate as I had not witnessed the actual beheading with my own eyes.

  "Stop!" I stood up and spread my arms in a dramatic 'hold everything or someone will get hurt' gesture. "Don't eat the tarts!"
I ran around the table collecting up the offending items.
   "I forgot to put the sugar in!"
(It has to be said, my father was reluctant to surrender his and we engaged in a brief tussle as I assured him it would be disgusting and he demurred that he 'just wanted to try it.')

My mother got up from the table and said simply.

  "Well, I've got some fruit if anyone wants some."

Monday, 23 April 2012

The house on the corner.

Every morning, on my way to get the newspaper from the local shop,  I pass by the house on the corner.  When I first moved in five years ago, it was an unloved double-fronted weatherboard cottage with a bad case of paint-peel psoriasis. It was a bit crooked, a bit broken, the sort of house that brings down the value of everyone else's in the street.

Then a 'For Sale' sign appeared out the front and someone bought it.  They started doing it up.  The renovation seemed to happen quickly, the way other people's renovations always do.

I noted with some envy that they made good decisions about colour.

For the facade they chose an off-white, with stark white trimmings on the door and window frames. 

And their attention to detail was good: they meticulously repaired the iron lacing on the front porch, put new window coverings on, re-turfed the front lawn and even had the foresight to install a diagonal path running through the lawn from gate to front porch so that the grass didn't get trampled.  They planted little privet shrubs along the front border and finally they started doing some very elaborate things in the side lane access in order to park their cars off the street.

This elaborate work perplexed me a little bit: a concrete pour, a remote control gate.  It seemed a lot of trouble to go to, just to get your car off the street.  Personally I find car accommodation a strange sort of obsession. In my view a lock-up garage is just a giant storage facility for all your junk. It is not a house for your car. And to that end a carport is just a very sorry and extremely pointless substitute.  And putting cars in your backyards seems to me an odd sense of priority.  I'd rather have more space in the backyard and I don't like looking at cars as I sit in the garden.

Sometimes I happened to be passing at the exact moment that the gate was open and I took a good old sticky beak into their backyard. It was immaculate (apart from the two cars parked in 50% of it).  A perfect lawn, a wraparound back porch, a brand new barbecue sitting proudly and discretely in the corner, an expensive outdoor setting.

 I imagined they were a popular and successful young couple who entertained friends in a stylish and photogenic way.  I became strangely jealous of them and their perfect house with the perfect backyard and the perfect place to park their cars, where they didn't even have to get out to open the side gate, they just buzzed themselves into their perfect compound and then shut the gate behind them so that people like me couldn't look at them.

 They're probably really nice people, I thought to myself. And good on them. I went on, really enjoying my early morning bonhomie vibe. They've made themselves the perfect home and now they're ready to fill it with the rest of their life. 

I started to get a bit misty about life in general.  About young couples starting out together making their history. Then I passed by the local halfway house for mentally disturbed outpatients where someone was howling unintelligibly like some kind of animal in a cage and I felt a bit sad again.  

One morning, about two years ago, I heard the cry of a newborn coming from one of the side windows of the house on the corner. I guessed that they'd had a baby.   Then just the other day, I heard what sounded like a puppy yowling from the laundry.  They were really getting their perfect life in order.

Baby. Check.
Puppy. Check.
2 x easy-access off-street parking spaces to stop people from stealing our cars. Check.
Good quality stainless steel barbecue. Check.
Outdoor setting that seats eight people comfortably. Check.

As I rounded the corner to the front of the house I saw the man in his front yard. He was collecting his newspaper.  For the briefest of moments I considered congratulating him on his perfect house. I imagined I'd say something like:
   "You've really done a great job with this house, it used to be a real eye-sore."
And he'd say something like:
   "Well thank you very much. Would you like to come to one of our perfect barbecues?"
And we'd all get to know each other as we clinked frosty glasses of pinot gris together. (In this fantasy I have perfectly blow-dried hair and I wear impeccably pressed fawn-coloured three-quarter pants with ballet flats.) 

He bent to pick up his newspaper from the front lawn and something displeasing on the front nature strip caught his eye. A woman walking her dog had just passed by the front of his house. 
   "Is that yours?" He called after her, not pleasantly.
I saw then that he was pointing to a small dog poo on the verge in front of his gate.
   "No." The dog lady said pleasantly. Then she held up her empty poo bags as proof and said, "I take these with me."
    "Are you sure it's not yours?" He was being very unpleasant about it.
Aggressive, combative. Ready for a stoush. 
    "No, definitely not." The woman maintained a friendly tone.  "I hate people who don't pick up their dog poo. I think it's appalling."  She brandished her poo bags again.  "See, I have these."
   "Well it looks pretty fresh to me." He stayed behind his fence, territorially but he stepped a bit closer to the edge. And he pointed, angrily.
    "Really, it's not mine." She said.
    "Well I'm sick and tired of people letting their dogs shit all over my nature strip." He said, the accusation obvious, even to me standing on the other side of the road.

The exchange continued like that.  It went on for as long as I was in earshot of them, which was longer than it should have, considering the woman had, to my mind, proven unequivocally that she was definitely a picker-upperer of her own dog's pooh.

I kept walking, toward the halfway house for mental patients where the tall-stooped-man-with-pants-pulled-up-under-his-armpits was standing outside  waiting for his Friday morning taxi.  He sways slightly as he stands. He scowls blankly at me as I go by: as though he expects everybody he encounters to be bad news.

Where does he go in that taxi every Friday? I thought to myself.  But in the back of my mind I was thinking about the perfect house on the corner and the not-so-perfect man who lived there.

It takes a certain type of person to keep their house that perfect.