Apt Entryway Sunrise over Balcony Construction Workers

A Study In Building Your Own House

(Are We There Yet?)

Watching the sunrise on my tiny balcony, I’m contemplating my next move. Literally, my next move. Two years ago today we moved into what I thought would be for a short time – a 3rd floor apartment that I instantly said upon seeing it, “This is the one.”

It backs up to the neighborhood with a clear view of Lanier Middle School where every morning, Tucker walked beneath our deck on his way to 7th and then 8th grade. Gary and I leaned over the balcony. Me yelling, “I love you” and Gary telling him to “be pro all day”. And he was. Most of the time. We were close enough to hear the pledge of allegiance to both America and Texas quite clearly as we finished our morning coffee outside.

Never occurred to me we’d still be in this apartment two years later. And still building the house. Never thought Tucker would be in high school and we’d be signing a third lease here or a first lease somewhere else. This new reality has brought on a gross feeling of ennui. Yes, there’s been tremendous progress. Yes, there now sits part of a house. Yes, the second floor is decked. Yes, the roof trusses are in place. And yes, the nine skylights are framed.

I still ask, “Are we there yet?” No. We are not. And we really don’t know when we’ll actually get “there”. The thought of staying another year in this apartment feels like defeat. Are we winning the battles but losing the war?

We live in tight quarters here. Gary’s desk and my desk take up what’s supposed to be the dining room leaving just enough space for an Ikea couch and a chair in the living room. Our plates haven’t seen a table in two years – we balance our meals on our knees.

Tucker’s bed, small desk, a couple of electric guitars and amp fill his bedroom from corner to corner. Gary and I wake up each morning to a wall of boxes that have stood so long as sentinels we barely notice them anymore. Our cat, through utter boredom I suspect, has gained over eight pounds.

Rent exceeds our mortgage. It’s clear we’re never going to attend any of the monthly apartment dwellers get-togethers. These past two years have been about building the house, scrimping, guiding Tucker through Middle School and preparing him for his first day of high school – a pivotal event that took place last week.

I started my company in this apartment. At a tiny desk where my butt butts up against Gary’s desk, I run my business, work on the “Building My Own House” documentary, handle the home and office accounting and conduct all my correspondence, business and personal.

Gary works from home, too. He’s flipped from employee to consultant twice since we’ve lived in this apartment. His anxiety about the house and money wake him up at 4 AM. He’s ready to take a nap on that Ikea couch right about the time I pour my second cup of coffee and head to my desk (about four feet from the couch).

Anyone who knows Houston knows the abundance of really good restaurants here. But we never eat out (it’s that money thing again!). For us, cooking is both a pleasure and a pain. Hauling a week’s worth of groceries up four flights of stairs (can’t always count on a working elevator) leads us into the apartment where we navigate down a short hallway lined with a variety of stout tool-boxes, a bulky compressor, bags of recycling and boxes of books. We pass Kaylee’s litter box housed in the hall closet– from which the scent of her latest deposit wafts in the air. Contents of the baker’s rack crash to the floor as the three of unsuccessfully squeeze past it while carrying heavy grocery-laden bags.

Our small kitchen and lack of a table don’t mean we’re forced into a culinary lightweight existence, however. I make over 250 meals in a month for the three of us. I now understand why I grew up on meatloaf every Monday and Tuna Noodle Casserole every Friday – my mother had seven people she cooked for every day! Still, I try not get stuck in a rut. If we can’t afford to go out or bring fast food in, ,my goal is to cook up tasty food that delivers a punch for about $5 a serving:

Meatballs in marinara sauce, peanut butter banana cookies, pizza topped with mushroom, onion, fresh pepperoni and mozzarella cheese, Asian short ribs, chili verde, gazpacho, chicken soup over Thai noodles, Ruben sandwiches, caldillo, mushroom gruyere grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen berry yogurt bites, breakfast tacos, cherry pork chops, smoothies, steaks au poivre, fajita tacos with pico, pasta shells stuffed with Italian sausage, mushroom & spinach, stir fry, red chili, dark chocolate brownies and empanadas (made by Gary last night). I made Quiche Lorraine on Sunday and served it to Tucker the first week of school and was amazed at how unrushed I felt every morning.

So how do you contain work and life, expanding and compressing three lives and a cat in 1080 square feet? How do you manage under one small roof two freelancers, building a house and raising a teenager who loves to play heavy metal guitar and pretty much knows everything?

After two years in this apartment, I’ve grown incredibly frustrated. There is no “room of one’s own” (even the cat refuses to leave the bathroom mat when I go in there for privacy). There’s no room on my desk to hold a cup of coffee AND my wallet. The appliances are too small for the amount of dishes we need to wash, the clothes that need to be cleaned and the leftover food that needs to keep fresh for several days. More than once Gary & Tucker have cowered on that Ikea couch while watching me attempt to fit the large dutch oven back into the tiny kitchen cabinet.

The task infuriates me, even though I knew earlier I’d have to pay later for getting it out to make coq au vin.

How do you survive the mundane, the schlepping required just to get through the day and still tend to your dreams' fire?

Accomplishing something everyday helps (even if that thing is a tasty meal). Keeping your eye on the prize does too. Gary believes in planning your work and working your plan. And never discount the importance of maintaining your humor in even the most dreadful of times.

The apartment is closing in on me. The house is taking too long to complete. The money is running out. We’re scared and worried. But we haven’t let any of this change our minds about building this house ourselves. I haven’t put down the camera or given up on the dream of making the “Building My Own House” documentary. I've gotten rejections to my idea for a (online) series about building this house ourselves. But, I still send out proposals. I unabashedly market my business to people who don’t know me and to those who no longer remember me. And I’m cooking in this tiny apartment the same dishes I will when that spacious, modern kitchen of mine has finally been built.

As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”