Monday, August 28, 2006

Dear Babies

Dear Babies,

Today we gave the realtor a big fat check to serve as earnest money on a new house. Your new house will have one fewer bedroom (2) than this current house, and no yard to speak of. This, by American standards, is a Very Uncommon Thing to do. In fact, some people might think we are outright crazy.

So, in order to better articulate why we are moving to such a house while also explaining to our family and friends that we really think we aren't crazy (mostly), your dad wrote a white paper. This is the way it goes:

Matt's White Paper

Whenever Microsoft does something that they thing is really brilliant, but everyone else thinks is less bright, they issue a “White Paper” to try to explain why they did what they did (as if they use a different color paper for everything else)

So consider this a white paper on why we are thinking of living in a house that’s built like a cruise ship.

Why Change?

Right now, we have the perfect setup for babies. A big, cooled screen porch that they can spill water all over. A nice cheap house with nice neighbors. And for everyone’s current age, we can’t do much better.

But they’re becoming more social, and our little corner of the city is becoming kind of small for the babies. Almost every day they want to go for a ride in the car – to the store, to a park with better playground equipment, more playmates, and less mosquitoes than our fenced backyard, to a music class, to feed the ducks. In our little corner of the neighborhood, most people are really happy to have just enough financial resources to have a little apartment or little house, and there’s not enough additional money flowing around to support amenities in the way of classes, nice parks, preschool, and even nicer grocery stores.

All of these things are back in town, and so looking forward, we see ourselves doing lots and lots and lots of driving. And with the odds of Joyce finding work outside of the central city pretty low, she’ll be driving into town to work, too.

So we figure, let’s move into town. Seems simple so far.

And off to School We Go

As in the rest of this country, segregation is alive and well in Houston, perhaps more so than it was before Martin Luther King, Jr. There are four neighborhood elementary schools in the central city that have good reputations, high test scores, few discipline problems, etc. Three of them, however, cheat. They draw their school boundaries so that they include only neighborhoods where deed restrictions allow only single family homes – no apartments, no townhomes, no condos. With the price of land in the city near $300,000 for a quarter acre, this means that the average house price for these schools is in the range of $550,000. The average house price in the entire city, not counting apartments, is well below $200,000.

The school that the C&D attend will go a long way towards shaping what they see is “normal”. If all of their friends get taken to school by the live-in nanny and picked up by mom in her Jaguar, then that will seem normal. But we’d like them to have a broader perspective on the world than what they see at the high-end section of the Galleria.

The fourth neighborhood school is in a more urban neighborhood, but it draws from a true cross-section of the city. Multi-million dollar homes sit a half mile away from subsidized housing projects. The school does well because of a high level of parent involvement, and it has programs (like art, music, PE) which most public elementary schools in Texas don’t have anymore.

In the same neighborhood is a public Montessori elementary school which is just getting started. Some parents like it, and some don’t – but because it is just starting it’ll be tough to understand its level of quality for a few years. It is a magnet school, and seems like you can transfer to it fairly easily regardless of where you live – but it’ll be nice to be close to school in any case. The city’s magnet school for gifted and talented kids is close by, too.

There are lots of different types of housing in that area, known locally as Montrose. Apartments, duplexes, townhomes, and single-family homes with yards sit literally right next to each other. There’s no zoning, which can be both a bad and a beautiful thing. The population is full of people who can probably be best described as liberal types – college students, young professionals, artists, musicians, and families. Our vegetable co-op is nearby, and you can walk to the city’s flagship Whole Foods. Montrose is as close as Houston gets to Berkeley or Laguna Beach, but with big oak trees on every street instead of an ocean.

Your housing options in Montrose are basically:

1) A house with a big yard, built in about 1920. Beautiful old houses, and within our price range with a bit of a stretch.

2) A townhouse built in the last 5-7 years (Houston’s economy has been booming since about 2000, and lots of townhomes are built). Pricey, but some are just within our price range. Granite countertops, 2500+ square feet, balconies.

3) A few (very few) townhomes built in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, when Houston’s economy also boomed. These are smaller (1500 square feet or so), but have bigger porches and balconies (land was cheaper then). Very few homes in Houston were built from 1980-2000 because the economy was still recovering from the oil bust.

Kids = Yard!

We’ve tried to understand what life will be like in a few years, when we’ll both be working and kids will be in school.

If Mom stays home with the kids, a suburban yard can be a beautiful thing. The kids come home from school at 3:00, and then can just run around the backyard while Mom keeps half an eye on them and half an eye on dinner, or the legal briefs she brought home from work, or whatever. And then all summer, the kids have a safe, fenced, immediately accessible place to play. (This isn’t maybe a very realistic scenario, but it’s the one everyone imagines will happen in their imagined suburban utopias. What we see in our street instead, however, is that both kids and adults tend to think their fenced-in, buggy yards are boring and blasé. Everyone instead hangs out in the front yard or street, where they socialize and BBQ and have lots of room for throwing around a Nerf ball. We did the same, BB, before babies.)

But what if Mom is working, too? It’s next to impossible to find a job that doesn’t run from 8-5. So the kids are in an after-school program of some sort, where they can play on really nice playground equipment, or learn art and music, or whatever. And once everyone gets home at 5 or 5:30, there’s time to cook dinner, do whatever homework there is, wind down, and go to sleep. Not much time to use the yard. And if summer is spent in a summer program or camp or school, you find the same story – not much time at home to use the yard during the week.

On weekends? You can always walk to the park. There are two nice city parks within a 10-15 minute walk from the neighborhood we’re looking at, plus the elementary school within walking distance, and the middle school with a big field. There’s also open green space at Rice and the University of St. Thomas and the Menil Collection, all plenty big enough to kick a soccer ball around on. And if dad takes the time he would have spent mowing and edging and spends that walking to the park instead, it might be even more enjoyable.

Lots of kids grow up in the city without a yard, and lots of parents raise those kids without a yard, and they all seem to come out OK. We’re not adamantly against having one (although in all respects a small or no yard is ultimately more sustainable than everyone living on a ¼ acre of grass), but we just can’t see ourselves using it much, or paying a huge premium on a place to live just to have one. A yard has some investment value, but so do lots of other things, so that’s not really reason to have a yard, either. Some outside space is a useful thing –space to grow a few plants or play in a little swimming pool or whatever. We use that type of space in our screen porch all the time and can’t see giving it up. But the townhouse—we refer to it as The Ship around here—has that space in an 18’x18’ patio, and a breezy balcony off the kitchen, as well. If you throw a big party, the yard is useful for that day, on the three days of the year when everyone is willing to stand around outside (remember, this is Texas!). But otherwise, is it really that necessary?

Lastly, the very lack of yards, or the very small yards in this area, is precisely why it has so many walkable amenities—the place is dense. The Ship is roughly ½ mile to Whole Foods, ½ mile to Fiesta, ½ mile to Poe Elementary, ½ mile to University of St. Thomas, 1 mile to Wilson Elementary (the public Montessori school), 1 mile to Rice, and 2 miles to the ducks at Hermann Park. And let’s not forget all the co-op preschools, the pottery studios, Art Mix and even church. Why spend all our time behind a fence, when we have the best of the city before us?

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Today is apparently August 26th.

I guess that means C&D turned 19 months three days ago. Oops. I had completely forgotten.

No surprise, though. We've been busy.

I know, there isn't a time when we're not busy. I never post and say, "Well, it's been pretty boring around here!" But lately, really, we've been busy.

First of all, C&D keep us on our toes. Well, okay, maybe not on our toes. More like, on our feet. Off to the park, off to rock horses, off to bounce balls, to sing, to dance, to stop everything and run to the potty so they can do their business, get up, and turn around, while sticking their index finger perilously close to the product of their bowels and bladder tell anyone within earshot, "pee-pee!" or "poo-poo!" Or, Carmen's favorite, "Did it!"

And then this weekend we began the process of buying a new house. We knew that at some point we would want the babes to be closer to a good school, my work, and the places we visit most. After a possible opportunity to leave Houston fell through, we decided to buckle down and commit to living here. After some casual browsing we realized that the areas we most like (and that are also convenient to Matt's work) are rapidly growing out of our price range, so we began to look more seriously. We knew that once a liveable, lower-priced property emerged on the market, we would need to pounce on it. And then, just as soon as we started looking, we found it. It's a sunny mod townhouse designed by William Stern. There are only two bedrooms, but the master bedroom is big enough that when C&D are ready for their own sleeping space we can creatively split it. The living area upstairs--we call it "the deck" as if the house were a ship--is bright and sunny, with large windows and an open kitchen, living, and dining room. The babes will have a large 18'x18' patio downstairs and a breezy patio off the kitchen upstairs to enjoy, and we will be within walking distance of several great parks. We will also be close to grocery stores (including Whole Foods), schools, and interesting public spaces like the Menil Collection. We're sad at the thought of leaving our neighbors and our little house, but have always known that sooner or later, we'd have to move on, and I guess this is pretty much it.

C&D caught colds this week and Carmen's nose is stuffy. I'm going to help her get back to sleep.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


I have almost forgotten there was a time (like, say, last week) when they couldn't talk. Now, they can both say and sign so many things. We have conversations, we follow directions, we dance with our dolls and feed the stuffed horses hay. We follow each other around and imitate each other like a household of parrots.

We say and sign when we are hungry and when we are thirsty, we make jokes (Carmen with a dolly in her arms: "Wa! Wa!" Me: "Carmen, is the dolly hungry?" Carmen drops the dolly on the floor and guffaws.). They ask for their shoes when they want to go outside or walk around when we are out, and they ask for a ride in the car when they are bored. They ask me to sing, and sing, and sing, and we move our hands together to the music. When we are singing along to the songs on the radio they clap at the end of the songs. When Carmen hears the One Fine Day soundtrack, she demands to dance with her crab puppet, while David dances with a penguin. After dinner she runs around with her hand in an oven mitt, calling it a duck. David runs around with the broom after our meals, reminding me that I should sweep the floor. We are not afraid of thunder. Well, not too afraid. Carmen can identify red, and sign most of the colors of the rainbow (and she can sign "waymbo," too) while she draws oblong "sow-kows" on the back of the diagrams from Matt's work. When he comes home, C&D run to the door saying "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" while Carmen will sometimes look at me and say in a small, clear voice, "Mahm-ee."

And yesterday David looked at me and tried to say and sign I Love You.

In the midst of all her growing and changing, Carmen's sleep has become even more fitful. Sometimes she gives up sleeping on her own altogether, like when at four in the morning two days ago I found her straddled across the small of my back, bouncing up and down. When I called her name she responded "diapuw" and after a quick potty and change, I rocked her to sleep while pretending to be interested in the early, early news shows. She craves the opportunity to rest her head in my elbow, my arm straining to hold her sprawling body toward me, as if at night she suddenly remembers she is small and young and afraid and needs the physical reassurance and comfort that she hadn't wanted all day. David, on the other hand, wakes from his naps early so that he can finish them in my lap while my arm goes numb and I stare out the window. So, in case I had forgotten what it was like, I feel like they are the restless sleepers of a year ago.

When babies are born, some things are forgotten. Excited relatives forget their manners, demanding "How are the babies?" on the telephone before a proper howdy-do. Parents forget when they have eaten or slept or showered, keeping track only of their babies' needs and habits. And when Matt's mother sent pictures of her visit to Houston to the family this week, she titled it, "Our Trip to Houston to Visit Twins Carmen and David." Matt and Joyce? Oh, yeah, they live there, too. But we all know the real purpose of the visit.

It is midnight and I have forgotten to go to bed. I probably should. Good night.