Housesitting and Disorientation

It’s Not My Home

My younger sister is now an empty-nester. Her son went away to college in Minneapolis (Augsburg) last week, leaving her with the dogs and a big house, and a fiancé.  We were over visiting them on Labor Day, and it was a celebration of my birthday and my son’s birthday.  We lit a fire in the backyard, ate some steak kebab and shrimp pancakes, told stories and played guitar.  It was a typical gathering for our two families, except that her son wasn’t present.

They had neglected to tell me that it was to be her fiancé’s birthday on Friday, and he turned fifty.

On Friday afternoon he left a panicked voice mail message for me, which at first caused alarm because in the phone tree system we have, he is the one who contacts me if Dad is having health problems that need to be discussed.  Dad’s health has been worsening since Mom died nearly three years ago, so I get upset whenever I think that something serious might be happening to him.

Ross’s voicemail was urgent, but not as urgent as I had feared when I first dialed into my phone to listen.  He and my sister needed someone to dog and house sit for the weekend while they took a trip to Chicago to see his family and just basically have some fun for his birthday.

So, I thought a bit about what I needed to do this weekend.  I didn’t have any big plans, and decided to help them out.  I called him to talk about it, and he said that in their planning, they had completely forgotten about lining up someone to take care of the dogs and cat while they were away.  My sister was close to the point of staying home while he went.

So I agreed. I have a custody arrangement with my ex-wife so that my kids are with me three weekends each month and this is one of the weekends I have them.  My kids are teenagers and don’t need a lot of feeding and watering, but they do need adult supervision.  I can’t leave them at my apartment alone for a whole weekend, so I explained to them what was up for the weekend.

At first, they were excited because they love my sister’s house.  It is far more spacious than my apartment.  My sister has a big old comfy bed that my daughter likes to snuggle into for sleeping.  It’s better than her own bed.  Her television is bigger than my own.  She has a lot more food in her fridge than I usually have.

But there are a few things that she doesn’t have that we have at home.  She doesn’t have a network cable within reach of her television and my son realized that he won’t be able to play network games on his new PS3, which for him is a downer.

I also discovered–actually I remembered–that my sister is a real cook.  She doesn’t buy her food the way that I do.  I am a “mix” cook, and she is an “ingredient” cook.  She actually has cookbooks and reads recipes and buys the components of her meals in parts rather than wholes.

I buy spaghetti sauce by the jar, she buys cans of tomato sauce and paste and spice and garlic cloves and onions and all the stuff that is so conveniently packaged for me in glass with a lid.  When I make supper, I am creative, at times, in how I put mixes together.  But I don’t really know how to start from scratch.

Last night we went to Wendy’s for dinner.  The kids were okay with that for last night.  This morning, I am not sure what to do about lunch and dinner.  I found some eggs and I can scramble them.  I found her waffle iron, but in place of a pancake or waffle mix, I found flour and eggs and baking powder and a whole bunch of stuff which Betty Crocker combines for me.

I need some coffee.  I have found a big bag of Sumatra beans, and a grinder.  But I haven’t been able to find her coffee maker.  I feel disoriented.  It’s not so much that I need my stimulant; it’s a departure from my basic routine.  I make coffee and drink a few cups before I wake up the kids.  It’s what I do nearly every morning, and I am separated from it.

Several years ago, I was dating a woman whose friend has a farmhouse near Northfield, Minnesota.  She was asked to housesit for a weekend while her friend was out of town.  She invited me down for the weekend with her, and I quickly agreed.  The house had been restored, adding modern conveniences (like a shower), while retaining the charms of a 19th century country home.  Her friend owned about ten acres of woods and grassland.

It was cozy on the cold winter nights, and I loved the house.  But the house was not my home, and I felt like an intruder in many ways.  I didn’t really know the owner all that well, and I was afraid to touch things.  I didn’t want to leave marks or a mess, and I certainly didn’t want to break anything.  I was ambivalent about my time there, because while I was enjoying myself, I wasn’t at home.

This weekend is giving me the same feeling about not being at home.  Sure, it’s my sister’s place and I have been here many times before.  I love the dogs and the cat.  It’s just not my place.  It’s my sister’s place.

Staying at a hotel or a motel is more comfortable than staying in someone else’s home.  In a hotel room, or suite, while I am there, it is a strange sort of home.  I don’t have to worry about leaving things the way they were when I got there.  I can relax and head down to the pool.

Staying at someone else’s place while they aren’t there is disorienting.  I would rather be at home.  I made some scrambled eggs for breakfast, but my son was upset that there was no ketchup on the fridge.  I am using someone else’s computer to write this.  I took a bath this morning instead of a shower.

My apartment is not a great apartment.  It can get crowded with only three people there.  When I am there, I know where things are.  I know the channels on the TV and how to work the remotes.  I don’t have to “guess” at so many things.  It would be better if the homeowner were here and I could ask her questions, but now I have to feel my way around someone else’s home.

The original plan was to stay down here this whole weekend, but we decided to go eat, take the dogs for a walk and then make sure that they have enough food to eat.  We’ll come back here in the morning (I have to drop my son off for school anyway and his school is close by).  We’ll let the dogs out for a bit, and then I will be back to normal.

I want to go home.

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10 Responses to “Housesitting and Disorientation”

  1. September 14th, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Dan J says:

    With hotel rooms I think it seems like no one lives there. It’s just a place to sleep and bathe, basically. With someone else’s house though, it’s definitely strange; stranger still if they happen to not be there while you are. I know someone who house-sits for months at a time for some people. Can’t understand how she does it.

  2. September 14th, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Rob W says:

    When i was a college student, one summer I stayed on campus for most of the summer working on a project I’d gotten a grant for. One of the professors I knew offered me the chance to housesit for him for a couple of weeks, to watch after the cat and hey, have a whole house to myself.

    He seemed to think I’d jump at the opportunity, and it would take me a while to sort out *why* it was such a bad idea… so I agreed doubtfully. It was horrible. Sure, a house is more comfortable than a dorm room, sort of, but I now was chained to this place that involved extra work (taking care of the cat, cleaning the house before their return, etc.), stress (worry about breaking something, or leaving a window open in the rain, or the door unlocked, not knowing where to find anything, etc.), and total social isolation, because I didn’t have any close friends on campus anyway, and now I was cut off from the normal evening interactions with other people in the kitchen, hallways, etc. at the dorm. It wasn’t very far from campus, but I had no car (and they left the keys of theirs explicitly only for utter emergencies), so I couldn’t go back and forth at a whim.

    And because it was such a favor to me, letting this poor student live in their house, they didn’t pay me a damned thing and even mentioned replacing any food I ate in the helpful note they left with emergency numbers and so on.

    It forever soured my image of the professor — we’d gotten along well before that — and whenever I have someone house-sit for me now, they get all kinds of special treatment, like a fridge stocked with their favorite foods, use of the car, the explicit expectation that at least one thing will be broken, and of course payment.

  3. September 15th, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    It’s kind of funny how housesitting can be sold as a “Free way to stay in a cool house.” But, I guess the reason that real estate agents sell “homes” and not “houses” is rather apparent.

  4. September 15th, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I’m not comfortable unless I have a say in every aspect of the house in which I’m living — any compromises, and they get under my skin. This makes me a horrible roommate. It also makes me unable to sleep even in hotels, much less guest rooms. I’m hoping this won’t become a big factor when we try to get to MN for CONvergence, but what can you do?

    I need some more coffee right now.

  5. September 15th, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    Well, I won’t let you stay at my place then! Hotels for you and Jodi.

    (will this be a problem when you get married?)

  6. September 15th, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    Oh, I’m not saying it makes me a horrible houseguest, just a very sleep-deprived one. Stephanie has already offered to put us up for the non-Con days on our honeymoon to MN (an extraordinary and welcome offer), so I’m hoping it won’t be a problem.

  7. September 15th, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    Be careful. I hear the Zvan house is haunted!

  8. September 15th, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    A cat who isn’t seen while we have company does not a haunted house make, Mike.

    Jason, have you tried sleepy pills? You may not survive SkepchickCon without sleep.

  9. September 15th, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    No, I haven’t tried any kind of sleep aid outside of whiskey in all honesty. Or, since we’re talking about SkepchickCon specifically, Buzzed Aldrins. Though booze does work, I don’t want any kind of dependency. I also don’t like to complain, though, so I’d try to put on a good show of being totally fine. My tells are that I’d be leaning heavily on coffee and Jodi, FYI.

    Maybe if I had a sleepless night, I could hunt for the ghost cat. I suppose that would be fun.

  10. September 24th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Barn Owl says:

    I loved housesitting and petsitting when I was in graduate school, but I was always paid in cash, garden produce, or wine (and often a combination of all three). I was encouraged to help myself to food in the pantry and refrigerator (within reason) for the duration of my stay. I had started making the transition from “mix” cook to “ingredients” cook (to use Mike’s terminology) at the beginning of grad school, because that was very much the culture, and I also found that I enjoyed cooking from scratch. One time, however, I housesat for a professor and his wife who, apparently, cooked things so completely from scratch that there wasn’t even anything like cans of stewed tomatos or tomato puree. I think they ground their own wheat into flour, and sent the dog out to bring in small game. It was that bad. And they lived well outside of town, in the middle of freakin’ nowhere.

    Fortunately, there was an amazing natural history library to peruse, while waiting for the lentils and rice to cook with the onion I dug up in the garden.

    I don’t even ask grad students to housesit, because I don’t have most of the amenities that they’re accustomed to. Things are just different now. However, I do occasionally housesit for friends, and always feel compelled to clean and tidy, because I can’t abide living in a mess.

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