The Staged Life

February 19th, 2013

My wife and I are in the process of selling our house. Our kids are off to school and we thought it might be interesting to go live in a high-rise instead of a large, rambling, house. We’re moving from this to this.

These days, if you want to sell a house, especially a somewhat expensive one, you stage it. “Staging” here has its root in the theatrical stage; it’s the process of furnishing  (or, in many cases, de-furnishing) a house and decorating it to best show off its assets. In addition to the actual staging, it’s important to keep the house in shape should anyone call wanting to see it in short notice. In a sense, you not only need to have a staged house, you also need to lead a staged life avoiding your usual behavior to prevent the typical entropy that would mess up the house.

Leading a staged life sounds like a terrible thing; it’s certainly not my natural state of being. There is some comfort, however, in following rigid rituals with an easily understood objective. Don’t leave your wet towels in the bathroom; put them in the dryer after bathing. Don’t have knives visible in the kitchen; it’s bad feng shui.  Remove all personal knick-knacks from view; buyers want to see themselves in your house, not you.

It occurred to me that several key staging principles might be good living principles. Here are some to consider (taken from this excellent reference):

Remove all clutter – “Take a good look at what you have and ask what you can do without.”

What marvelous advice! Even before contemplating a 60% reduction in square footage, I was already aghast at the amount of stuff we had collected over the years. As we prepared to stage the house we went through all of our rooms and selected items to toss, to donate and to keep. It took two trips to Goodwill with a 17′ U-Haul truck to remove our in-good-shape-but-don’t-need-them-anymore belongings. It took another truck ride to take our discards (over 1,000 pounds) to the dump.

Removing clutter from a house makes it look larger, more sophisticated, and inviting. Removing clutter from your life makes you feel 20 pounds lighter (alas, I have another 20 to go).

Make your house serene and inviting – “Create a relaxing…setting with luxurious linens and soft colors that will make a potential home buyer want to hang out”

Who wants to hang out with people who are all conflict and drama? Don’t you want your friends to be people with whom you can relax and enjoy life? How do you achieve serenity? To paraphrase Billy Crystal  (pretending to be Ricardo Montalban), “If you look marvelous, you will feel marvelous.” Buy yourself a luxurious linen suit/dress in soft colors.

I mean this seriously. I believe that you can achieve serenity, happiness and even love by willing yourself to do it. Certainly, the opposite is clear: you will never achieve serenity, you will never achieve happiness and you will never love if you lead a life full of conflict, woe and hate. Be deliberate in your choice to be happy and your chance of achieving it will inevitably improve.

First impressions count – “Open stairways and foyers need to draw people up and in.”

In addition to wearing your soft pastel linens, your personality should also be open and inviting.  To be open to friendship, to draw people “up and in”, you need to be interesting and appealing. It is my experience that the best way to achieve this is to talk little about yourself and to be utterly fascinated with what others have to say. The best conversationalists tend to be the ones who say the least. Strive for two questions for every answer. Follow up. Ask details and nuance. Be interested not just in the “what” but the “why” and “how”, too. Ask about motivations, fears, and goals. If you must talk about yourself, do it only in response to a question. Answer with the minimum amount of detail that provokes interest but avoids all self-aggrandizement. When asked where I went to college, I generally answer “New Jersey.”

Accentuate the positive – “Clients usually know what they like best about their home. It’s usually what they saw that made them want to buy.”

I know many people who are more defined by the things that make them unhappy than by the things that bring them pleasure. Conversations with them are always about the things that have gone wrong in their lives. Now, I admit to occasionally reveling in schadenfreude but only in limited doses. I firmly believe that negative people attract negative experiences and vice-versa. Optimistic people get upgraded to first class; pessimistic people end up on the Carnival Triumph. Optimists on the Triumph value the great story they will be able to tell; pessimists will never cruise again.

For your sake and those of your prospective friends and lovers, concentrate on the aspects of yourself and your life that bring you the most joy.

There are some staging principles that apply better to real estate than to personal behavior. I would never recommend that anyone remove all personal references. While buyers want to visualize themselves in your house, prospective friends want to visualize you in theirs. Similarly I would not suggest that anyone put on a new face (“If you can’t get new cabinets, just get new doors and drawer fronts.”). In general, I don’t like plastic surgery.

Staging theory isn’t a perfect guideline for living but, nevertheless, I am always fascinated when principles of one domain seem to apply well to another. I loved Being There, especially Peter Sellers’s misappropriated quotes. As with gardening and economics, I think there are parallels between staging real estate and staged living.


January 16th, 2013

My father died in 2001, shortly after 9/11. He died of pneumonia, but that was really just the malady that finally proved too much for him. As a child, he’d suffered both typhus (yellow fever) and polio – diseases that often killed children of his era. I believe the lung damage from polio is what led to oxygen deprivation (he had only one working lung), dementia and, ultimately, pneumonia. Beyond the physical, my father suffered an abusive father, poverty and the Spanish Civil War. As aspiring art student while in his teens (he was a good illustrator and sculptor), he had to give up these dreams when drafted into the Cuban army. By the time he arrived in New York in 1949, all he lived for was to earn enough money to escape the problems of his childhood. He worked in steel mills then in construction. When he and my mother moved to Florida, he did some real estate development. When they moved out to Washington, he was smart enough to invest a few dollars in the company I was working for at the time (Microsoft, in the early 90s). By living an extremely frugal life and investing wisely, he essentially became a blue-collar millionaire, if only briefly.

As a teenager and early adult, I lamented how my father had been transformed from art student to workaholic. I distinctly remember him admiring a wooden box that a friend had crafted for me then asking “does he make money selling these?”  He’d lost the notion that someone could build something driven only by the mere love of creation.

So I was astounded when, rummaging through my father’s papers after his death, I found two poems that he’d written. I made copies of them and sent them to my sister and family then, sadly, lost them after a hard disk crash. Fortunately, my sister kept paper copies. I have transcribed and translated, as best I can, the first poem below and leave the second for a future post. Both are in Spanish and untitled.


En el camino apuro mis pasos
Con el alma erguida hasta la frente
Pensando en ver en su rostro una sonrisa
Y al no verla presiento que se ha ido para siempre

Miro al cielo, en circulos, de miedo
Ausente de alguien que me ayude
Me siento solitario y olvidado
Come ciervo perdido en el desierto

Me siento inconforme con la vida
Como si estuviera atravesando una cañada
De tierra humeda y helada
Que se agarra a mi como tumba de la nada

Pase mi vida al lado de los mios
Con un pensamiento de ser eterno
Cuidador de mi raza y mi familia
Para hallarme solo en el vacio


 On the path, I hurry my steps
My soul bursting from my senses
Imagining a smile on her face
And upon not finding her, I know that she’s gone forever

Scared, I look to the sky, in circles
With no one to help me
I feel lost and forgotten
Like a deer in the desert

I feel uncomfortable with living
As if I am crossing a valley
Of earth, humid and cold,
That pulls me like the tomb of nothingness

I spent my life beside my own
With thoughts of living forever
Defender of my people and my family
Only to find myself alone in the emptiness

I am not sure whether the first paragraph refers to an actual “her” or is simply a metaphor for lost opportunities. The second and third speak to his loneliness. While my father was an extrovert and had many acquaintances he also had few close friends. Having rarely received any affection from his own parents, he was not one to openly express his feelings or his personal thoughts. Having been a sergeant in the army, he was a tough guy who could admit no weakness.

The last paragraph, I read as one of disappointment. He spent his life exclaiming the greatness of the Spanish people (he grew up in Galicia). He devoted himself to assuring that his family would not suffer the poverty of his youth. And yet, having realized his mortality, he notes that neither country nor family can keep him from the emptiness.

I sometimes note that men don’t truly feel like adults until their fathers die. I loved my father and always sought to make him proud of me, but also had my list of grievances. When he died, I was happy that my mother would live her final years with tranquility. Years later, though, I still miss my father and occasionally dream of him. Being a lucid dreamer, I always take the opportunity to hug him; something that I wished I’d done more often while he was still alive.

On Politics

October 8th, 2012

I don’t often talk about politics, but when I do, here’s what I usually say. My apologies to those close friends who’ve heard this spiel before.

I believe in existence of multiple systems of truth. By this, I mean that I believe that each person creates a framework of beliefs that forms the basis for their behavior. No two frameworks are alike and some are radically different from others. It is impossible to convince someone of anything if your basic tenets are too different. Each of you will look at a “fact” and interpret it differently. This applies even to matters of science. It is why the scientific community relies on peer-review and emergent consensus as the mechanism for deciding what’s “generally recognized as true” (mind you, not True, just “recognized as true.”)  There may be scientists that argue that climate change is a hoax, but they are arguing against the consensus view. The consensus may occasionally be wrong, but I’d never bet too heavily against it.  Alas, politics is not science and has no mechanism for consensus.

I believe that both the liberals and conservatives in America are still suffering from the mindset of their Puritan ancestry. Rather than spiritual self-flagellation, however, these modern day Puritan descendants seek their personal punishment elsewhere. Liberals hate wealth; Conservatives hate sex. When I see Liberals spouting off about “corporate greed”, or the evils of globalization or why we must all move into small houses and start riding bicycles to work, I see the same pathology as that suffered by Conservatives who rally against sex education, abortion rights and gay marriage. Liberals like the idea of global warming because it means that we will all have to be poor. The guys who end up working as social workers after getting their PhDs in English will feel better about themselves if their MBA-earning friends have to sell their BMWs and buy Priuses. Conservatives have sex, of course, but with the lights off and they’re still embarassed about it. They don’t want sex education or birth control because they think their daughters will immediately go out and start having indiscrimate sex.  They don’t like welfare, because they know that all those poor people are having indiscriminate sex and getting abortions all the time.   Liberals and conservatives in the US are still suffering from the religious silliness of their ancestors.  They need counseling. All of them.

I believe that anyone who wants to gain elected office should, by decree, be considered ineligible for the job due to evident personality disorder. Rather than electing officials, they should be chosen randomly, like jurors. One day, you might get a postcard informing you that you have to be a Senator for the next six years.  Of course, you won’t want to do it, you’ll try to weasel out of it, but the second time you get the card, you’ll be forced to take the job (for $18/day). Seriously, I can’t see how this system would be any worse than what we have now.

In spite of my cynicism, I still vote. I generally vote Democrat although, once, I did vote for a Republican city council member.

I vote Democrat in spite of being relatively wealthy and not likely to buy a Prius any time soon. I vote Democrat because I like sex more than I hate wealth. I’ve met many wealthy people who are good folk, doing good things and often voting Democrat, too. On the other hand, I’ve never met a Celibate with whom I could enjoy a beer.

I vote Democrat because conservatives are too often driven by fear. Fear of the government, fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, and, of course, fear of daughters having too much sex. There’s a very thin line between fear and hate.

Democrats, perhaps, may have too much faith in government, be too willing to open our borders and be too tolerant of burqas. Perhaps their daughters are guilty of wantonness. If I have to chose between naive optimism and excessive fear, however, I will always choose the former.