Life in a crooked house: Who needs straight lines?

My house has a life of its own. I can hear it very plainly in the night, sighing and yawning and squeaking, going about its business of being well over 100 years old.

At first, these sounds disconcerted me. I was a young first-time home buyer, and, like a new father listening for his sleeping child's exhalations, I sat up whenever I heard something out of the ordinary. "My gosh," I'd remark. "The place is falling apart."

That was 17 years ago, and the house is still holding together, although it has more to say as it ages. Especially in the winter, when the eaves seem to be contracting against the blast of the frigid Maine winds, like a man throwing his arms around himself to stay warm. Sometimes it's an awful sound, a sort of mammalian howl; but when I get up in the dead of night to inspect, the roof is still there.

I once had a carpenter named Mike who gave it to me in a nutshell: "Bob, your house is crooked." He was right. I could see it in the floors, the ceilings, the roof line, the door jambs, even the window frames. Drop a ball on the floor and it will roll away into oblivion. Open a door and don't worry about forgetting to close it - she'll take care of that herself. There are windows that haven't been opened in years because they can't be.

Sometimes, when I am working outside, I turn and gaze at my home in wonder. The curves. The warps. The bulges. If Salvador Dali were still alive, he'd shake my hand.

Mike the carpenter worked for me with great reluctance. I understood his frustration - his measurements meant nothing, because nothing in my house was square, nothing was level, and it seemed that, in places, nothing was holding the place together. Once, in exasperation at not being able to find the wall studs where they were supposed to be, Mike threw down his hammer.

"Bob," he said, "I have some advice for you."

"Yes, Mike?"

"Get out while the gettin's good."

For a while, I wanted to correct everything that was wrong with the house, if only to please Mike. But I soon learned that this was impossible (both fixing the house and pleasing the unpleasable Mike). My house, like an exotic plant, simply had its own growth habit, as if it were meant to be crooked. And so my choices seemed clear: Sell out or learn to live with it.

I chose the second path, but not out of any sense of resignation. Rather, I grew, however slowly, to love my home's inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies.

I also learned that I was not alone: There were many artists who disliked the straight line. Preeminent among them was the late Austrian painter and architect with the daunting name of Friedensreich Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, who called straight lines "the devil's tools." Hundertwasser even designed a low-income apartment block in Vienna that featured undulating floors. (He considered uneven floors "a melody to the feet.")

When I mentioned this role model to Mike and showed him photos of Hundertwasser's designs, he scoffed. "Notice that he doesn't live in these buildings himself, he said.

It's interesting how living in a crooked house has colored my view of the new homes that seem to be going up everywhere. I gaze at them in wonder tinged with doubt. Every line is perfect and clean, fastidiously complementing adjacent lines and angles. They stand, solitary and bright, in fields cleared of their trees.

Here in Maine, the builders and architects strive to make these brand-new homes fit into the landscape by giving them classic New England details, though the clapboards be vinyl. But the result always disheartens me, for I realize that it is life's imperfections that both stimulate and humble us. I have never once looked at these new houses with anything resembling longing.

A friend once cajoled me into visiting one of them. There were a number of other visitors, and they were dutifully gushing as the real estate agent stood a small distance away, glowing.

"So, what do you think?" he asked as I passed near. By way of response, I took a nickel from my pocket, bent down, and stood it on edge in the middle of the floor. It didn't budge. In my house it would have made an immediate beeline for the next room.

The agent saw what I was doing and said, "Perfect, isn't it?"

I took my nickel and shook my head. "Not yet, but give her 50 years, and she will be."

Although I am content with my crooked house, I never said that I was easy to get along with.

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